By Nicole Lim, Senior Assistant Director, Communications and External Relations
More than 120 scientists and researchers from across Singapore attended the inaugural Stem Cell Symposium organised by LKCMedicine on May 22, which brought together leading experts in the field from around the world and offered an overview of regenerative medicine.
Opening the event at the Toh Kian Chui Lecture Theatre, LKCMedicine Professor of Developmental Biology Philip Ingham FRS announced that this year marks the 20th anniversary of James Thomson's paper describing how embryonic stem cell lines are derived from human blastocysts. "It was a breakthrough, which I think, gave enormous impetus to what was still a fledgling discipline of regenerative medicine in the late 1990s. For the first time, it provided a clear roadmap to the development of cell replacement therapies for diseases," he said, adding that developmental biology played a key role in enabling scientists to make such discoveries.
Science is now finally set to deliver on the roadmap laid out in Thomson's paper and its inherent promise, said Prof Ingham, citing recent advances such as breakthroughs in the treatment of macular degeneration as examples of the progress made. He ended his address by thanking the organisers – LKCMedicine Nanyang Assistant Professors Xia Yun and Christine Cheung – and said, "The future for regenerative medicine is looking very bright and I'm sure we're going to hear why in this special symposium today."
Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who holds the Roger Guillemin Chair at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in the US, followed with a description of the different strategies for disease modelling including cell, genetic and epigenetic approaches, focusing in particular on their application to ageing studies.
Three speakers at a time then took to the stage for each of the three sub-topics: Regeneration in situ – in vivo Disease Modelling and Therapy, Human Models of Development and Disease, and Broadening the Capability. Among them were LKCMedicine Assistant Professor of Developmental Biology Tom Carney, who talked about a protease and inhibitor system essential for maintaining both epidermal integrity and quiescent inflammation; Asst Prof Cheung, who talked about her work on specific genetic variants in Asian coronary artery disease; and Asst Prof Xia, who talked about her work on growing kidney organoids from human pluripotent stem cells.
Experts from around world came together to discuss recent trends and issues pertaining to regenerative medicine
Professor Charles ffrench-Constant from the University of Edinburgh then gave a second keynote presentation on his work on neurons and neuronal replacement in stroke. He emphasised that the work represents first steps only, but hoped that it encourages the audience to think about "some of the steps we need to go through if we are going to generate these transplantable niches in the long term".
The honour of giving the closing address fell to NTU School of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering Division of Bioengineering Professor Teoh Swee Hin, who addressed The Future of Regenerative Medicine – Leadership of Clinicians, Engineers, Biologists & Regulators. Prof Teoh felt that one important message he wanted to leave the audience with was that the ultimate aim for regenerative medicine is translation. To make his point, he shared his personal experience where he – an engineer – collaborated with a clinician to create a novel 3D-printed bioengineering solution for an 18-year-old girl from Bangalore, who had a large hole in her skull that extended all the way from her right temple to her right ear on one side of her head.
From his experience, Prof Teoh knew that the key to success was to avoid any micro-motion around the implanted scaffold and because the defect was very large, blood vessels would need to be re-routed to allow hair to regrow on the scalp. He printed the 3D plastic scaffold using CT scans to get an exact match and soaked it in cells from the patient's bone marrow. When neurosurgeon Dr Sharan Srinivasan fitted the scaffold, he exclaimed that it "fit like a button", Prof Teoh recalled. Five years after the operation, Prof Teoh received a photo of the young woman with a full head of hair. He added that even better than a publication in Nature or Science was to receive a photo of the young woman's first baby. With this example, he hoped to illustrate the translational impact of regenerative medicine, a field that is expected to be worth some $82bn by 2021.