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Vol 21, No. 08, August 2017   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
Interviews at Commonwealth Science Conference 2017

Advances in science and technology have created opportunities to give people a better start in life, cure rare genetic diseases, personalise medicines and even grow more resilient plants that can help to feed the world.

During the Commonwealth Science Conference (CSC) 2017 held in Singapore from 13-16 June, APBN editor Carmen Loh interviewed three scientists who have focused their careers on just such endeavours: Professors Janet Rossant, Jennifer Thomson and Terrence Forrester.

More than 400 scientists from 37 Commonwealth countries attended the event at the Biopolis biomedical hub. It included lectures and discussions on sustainable cities, emerging infectious diseases, oceans’ future and low carbon energy, and was organised by the UK's Royal Society and Singapore’s National Research Foundation.

I. Interview with Professor Janet Rossant

One of the most important planks of medical research rests on a single mouse that was created in 1992. At the time, scientists believed that stem cells, a type of cell that can transform into other cells, could carry out only limited functions and turn into certain types of cells.

Professor Janet Rossant, a developmental biologist, thought otherwise. Working with other scientists, she created an entire mouse out of stem cells, showing that the cells can divide indefinitely and become every type of cell, whether blood, muscle, heart or lung.

Since then, scientists around the world have raced to explore the cells’ use in medicine and medical research. Prof Rossant, who is now a senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (also known as Sick Kids) in Toronto, Canada, after a decade as its chief of research, also continued to break new ground.

She discovered a new stem cell type, called the trophoblast, that forms the placenta. She also led a team at Sick Kids that was the first to produce mature lung cells, from stem cells, that can be used to study cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder, and test drugs against it.

In her CSC lecture, “Embryos, Stem Cells and Ethical Concerns”, she gave an overview of her research and the stem cell field at large.

Q: Your work at Sick Kids involves taking skin cells from cystic fibrosis patients and turning them into mature lung cells for medical research. How is this done, and how can it help the patients?

Prof Rossant: After we take the skin cells, we reprogram them into induced pluripotent (IPS) stem cells, which are essentially adult cells that have been genetically induced to function like embryonic stem cells. We can then turn these IPS cells into mature lung cells.

This process is important because, by using skin cells from patients, we can create mature lung cells that are specific to each patient. We can then test drugs against these lung cells to see which drugs would work for each patient.

Drugs for cystic fibrosis are extraordinarily expensive, and patients can have the same mutation and yet respond differently to the same drug. With our work, we can help to make sure that each patient gets the right drug at the right time. We are also creating a bank of IPS cells from cystic fibrosis patients to further our work.

Q: Can you tell us more about your research on trophoblasts?

Prof Rossant: I discovered trophoblast stem cells in mice. These cells surround an embryo and attach it to the uterine wall, eventually becoming the placenta. By studying these cells, we can understand more about placenta defects, which contribute to many pregnancy complications and problems. We are also trying to create human trophoblast stem cells.

Q: You’ve said that interdisciplinary collaboration will become increasingly important in stem cell research, and in science in general. Can you elaborate on this?

Prof Rossant: We can grow stem cells in petri dishes now, but if we want to treat patients with them, we have to find ways to produce millions of the cells. We need bioengineers and materials experts for that. That’s just one example of the interdisciplinary collaboration that will be needed to bring stem cells into regenerative medicine.

Science in general is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary too. Conferences such as the Commonwealth Science Conference are great because they allow scientists, especially young scientists, to come together and establish new relationships. This kind of meeting of minds across nations, cultures and scientific fields is really the way of the future.

II. Interview with Professor Jennifer Thomson

Climate change could hurt global crop productions due to rising temperatures, higher rates of evaporation and longer periods of dry weather. Professor Jennifer Thomson, who is emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, is developing drought-resilient maize plants that can withstand such harsher conditions.

An expert in genetically modified crops, she has also created maize that is resistant to the African endemic maize streak virus. This modified crop did well in glasshouse trials and was the first transgenic crop to be developed in Africa by Africans for an African problem.

She has authored several books on genetically modified organisms, in particular crops and foods derived from them, and addressed both the World Economic Forum and the United Nations on the subject. During the CSC, she took part in a panel discussion on the social and policy implications of new technologies, and presented her insights on agricultural biotechnology.

Q: You recently created varieties of potentially drought-resilient maize plants. Can you tell us more about this work?

Prof Thomson: My research is focused on the Xerophyta viscosa, a South African indigenous plant which is nicknamed the ‘resurrection plant’ because it can withstand losses of up to 95 per cent of its water for months. When it receives more water again, it ‘resurrects’ itself within 72 hours and continues to grow.

We took genes from this plant and put them into test plants. We plan to introduce the genes into approximately 12 varieties of maize plants, because different varieties grow better in different areas. We’re in the process of finalising an agreement with the South African government’s Technology Innovation Agency which will help us to further the work.

We’re also working with a local seed company, close to Cape Town, which has glasshouse facilities that are regulated. The company will help us to carry out glasshouse trials of the drought-resilient maize plants. If those are successful, we’ll go on to field trials.

Q: If the glasshouse and field trials are successful, what would be the steps after that?

Prof Thomson: In general, with genetically modified (GM) crops, the most important thing is to let farmers get access to the seeds, even if it’s only on a trial basis. Farmers can’t be told about the benefits of GM crops, they have to see them for themselves.

I think we should also have farmer extension offices, where, for example, the government’s department of agriculture pays people to go out to farms to teach farmers about new technology, whether it’s mechanisation or genetically modified crops. When it comes to the latter, I think farmers will also need subsidies at first to purchase the seeds.

Q: You were elected president of the Organisation for Women In Science for the Developing World in 2016. What are some of your plans for the group?

Prof Thomson: I’ve got a couple of things in the pipeline. We’ve already opened up the organisation’s full membership to social scientists, and we are also opening up the associate membership to men in the developing world as long as they support our aim of supporting women.

I also want to have ambassadors in the developed world. The fellowships that we offer include discretionary money for the fellows to travel beyond the developing world. If the women scientists can get invited to work, study and attend workshops in the developed world, that will give them more exposure, so I’m looking for ambassadors to help spread the word.

III. Interview with Professor Terrence Forrester

Malnourished children are more likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure and other diseases later in life. Professor Terrence Forrester, a professor of experimental medicine at the University of West Indies in Jamaica and chief scientist of its Solutions for Developing Countries division, is studying this relationship in order to give people a better start in life.

His research is of particular relevance to populations that currently have high rates of severe childhood malnutrition such as sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean; as well as those who have a recent history of high prevalence of severe childhood malnutrition event though rates today might be low. The work has been of particular importance to his native Jamaica and other Caribbean nations such as Trinidad and Tobago, given the region’s high prevalence of hypertension and high death rate from stroke and coronary heart disease. It can also aid in the global fight against childhood obesity as children who suffer severe malnutrition also have an increased risk of obesity and associated cardio-metabolic disease in adulthood.

He has advised numerous health organisations, including the World Health Organisation, Britain’s Medical Research Council, the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the Caribbean Health Research Council. He has also won awards and honours such as the Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Award for Excellence and the Order of Jamaica.

During the CSC, he delivered a lecture titled “The Double Burden of Malnutrition: Mechanistic Insights for Better Management”.

Q: Your research has focused on the link between nutritional stress in childhood and later-in-life hypertension and obesity. Can you describe the relationship?

Prof Forrester: Essentially, people traverse sensitive developmental windows during the prenatal and infancy stages. If they do not receive enough nutrition during those windows, their biological systems change in order to help them to adapt and to survive. They might become more prone to storing excess energy as fat, for example, and the resulting obesity would accelerate the elevation of their blood pressure over their lifespan.

We are now studying malnutrition in African origin populations living in different environments, for example in Jamaica and Ghana. We hope to use this ecological contrast to uncover more information about the effects of malnutrition.

Q: What other research are you working on?

Prof Forrester: We’re developing research-based interventions to prevent the development of these adverse biological changes, in places where severe malnutrition is common. For those people who are already malnourished, our focus is on mitigating the effects. Our conceptual framework for the interventions revolves around the developmentally sensitive periods.

Q: Your CSC lecture is on the “double burden” of malnutrition. Can you elaborate on this?

Prof Forrester: Children who survive severe acute or severe chronic malnutrition suffer poor brain development and cognitive impairment. They turn in poor school performances that then constrain their economic activity in adulthood. This impaired labour productivity costs between 3 and 16 per cent of the gross domestic product annually in Africa and Asia, for example, where malnutrition is a massive problem.

Investments in optimum nutrition during the critical first 1,000 days of life would help to prevent these devastating, lifelong consequences of childhood nutrition. They would enable children to become healthy, educated and productive members of society.

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