Injecting vigour into scientific research

Dr Lim is a principal investigator at the Institute of Medical Biology. He is trying to develop skin cultures that are more like real skin than those currently used for skin grafts.
Dr Lim is a principal investigator at the Institute of Medical Biology. He is trying to develop skin cultures that are more like real skin than those currently used for skin grafts.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Dr Tee's research focus is on developing electronic skin to use in prosthetic limbs and other biomedical and robotic devices. He has already developed e-skin that is elastic, sensitive to pressure and can self-heal multiple times.
Dr Tee's research focus is on developing electronic skin to use in prosthetic limbs and other biomedical and robotic devices. He has already developed e-skin that is elastic, sensitive to pressure and can self-heal multiple times.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Dr Guo's research looks at how ribonucleic acid translation has an impact on male fertility. She is also interested in using such research to develop an antiviral drug to treat HFMD.
Dr Guo's research looks at how ribonucleic acid translation has an impact on male fertility. She is also interested in using such research to develop an antiviral drug to treat HFMD.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The annual Young Scientist Award, given out with the President's Science and Technology Award this week, recognises promising researchers aged 35 and below. Carolyn Khew speaks to this year's winning scientists, who are already making waves in their fields.

Making patients more comfortable in their new skin

Cut a planarian flatworm into pieces and, in a few weeks, you will see each part growing into a new worm.

Animals such as the planarian piqued the curiosity of Dr Lim Xinhong, principal investigator at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Medical Biology. Their amazing regenerative ability was what eventually prompted him to start studying skin in 2008.

Among his various research areas, the 34-year-old is looking at how skin can be grown in a petri dish with "mini-organs" such as hair follicles and sebaceous glands, responsible for producing sebum in human skin to keep it lubricated.

While current skin grafts help cover wounds, patients are unable to produce sweat or grow hair.

"This is a big problem for patients who receive such grafts. It significantly affects their quality of life. Aesthetically it looks strange… It doesn't have hair so it looks clearly like a graft," said Dr Lim.

IMPERFECT SOLUTION

This is a big problem for patients who receive such grafts. It significantly affects their quality of life. Aesthetically, it looks strange... It doesn't have hair.

DR LIM XINHONG, who is looking at how skin can be grown with "mini organs" such as hair follicles and sebaceous glands.

"Because of the lack of hair and sebaceous glands, the skin also tends to be dry and fragile."

So what Dr Lim wants to do is make skin cultures that are much more similar to real skin.

Current skin graft procedures work like this: Skin is first taken from another part of the body before stem cells are extracted from it. The cells are then regrown into cell sheets before they are transplanted onto the wound site.

Over the past two years, Dr Lim has been trying to grow these "mini organs" by harvesting stem cells and then providing the right molecular or chemical signals that instruct them to grow into hair follicles and sebaceous glands.

These have never been developed before and, if successful, would be a world first.

"I am always interested to find out how we can regrow things that we've lost. The skin is a great model for that because it is the largest and one of the most regenerative organs in the body," he said.

Apart from growing skin, Dr Lim, who received his doctorate in developmental and stem cell biology from Stanford University in the United States, wants to find solutions for acne and hair loss. Despite there being many products which promise to solve acne or hair loss woes, many questions about these conditions remain unanswered.

In the case of acne, not much is understood about what causes it. Factors such as stress, diet or excess sebum are said to be closely associated but no one really knows why or exactly how this works, said Dr Lim.

He is studying a type of bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes which has been said to give rise to the skin condition.

"Many of these microbes thought to contribute to acne are already on our skin. They are part of healthy skin, so what exactly goes on during acne? Are these microbes just along for the ride or do they cause the disease?"

There is currently no solution for hair regrowth, either. While some drugs on the market are effective in preventing hair loss, they do not help hair to regrow. Some patients have also reported side effects such as erectile dysfunction, said Dr Lim.

"Acne can be scarring, and both acne and hair loss can lead to disfigurement," he added.


Desire to make Star Wars tech a reality

Turning science fiction into reality has always been the dream of 34-year-old scientist Benjamin Tee.

And it was a scene in Star Wars which enthralled the sci-fi fan and fuelled his imagination.

This was when Luke Skywalker received a bionic hand, allowing him to feel sensations such as pain, after losing his right appendage in a duel.

And so, since 2008, the researcher from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering has been working on developing electronic skin that can be used in prosthetic limbs, with other potential applications in robotics and biomedical devices.

He has already developed e-skin that is elastic, sensitive to pressure and can self-heal multiple times, and is looking at developing such skin on a larger scale.

BETTER DEVICES

Right now, prosthetic devices have a very limited sense of touch and I think embedding these sensors will change how patients deal with limb loss.

DR BENJAMIN TEE, who has been working on developing electronic skin that can be used in prosthetic limbs.

"Right now, prosthetic devices have a very limited sense of touch and I think embedding these sensors will change how patients deal with limb loss," said Dr Tee.

"If we have these smart prosthetics, we can ameliorate the unfortunate event of losing a limb."

The electronic skin prototype developed by Dr Tee is made of millions of tiny rubber pieces each much smaller than the cross-section of a strand of hair. These allow the skin to sense pressure much more precisely, such as when a person grips a glass of water.

He has also developed transparent stretchable electrodes embedded in the skin to convert the pressure into electric signals the brain can understand, so the person can, for instance, "feel" the grip.

The signals could then be sent to the brain by having wires that are surgically placed in contact with the nerves on the remaining part of the limb, he noted.

As for its self-healing property, which can be done repeatedly, this is done through chemical bonds in the artificial skin which work like zippers, allowing the skin to repair itself.

Apart from prosthetic limbs, Dr Tee is researching other ways in which his electronic skin technologies can be applied.

This includes using them in smart patches to measure blood pressure, for instance. By embedding microelectronics in the patches, the information can then be fed back to a computer.

"You can track the rate at which the blood fills the veins and they can tell you something about whether the arteries are a little stiff... Those could be signs of arteriosclerosis (the thickening and hardening of the walls of the artery), for example," added Dr Tee.

He also hopes to use his electronic skin for robots so that they can better relate to and care for humans - just like the robots in the futuristic cartoon The Jetsons, or the sci-fi movie Robot & Frank.

"It's quite cool when you bring a technology you see in movies to a real-life product that people can actually use," said Dr Tee, who received his doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in the United States.

"Imagine if (robots) can do a handshake and, at the same time, straightaway read your vital signs."


Looking for solutions to male infertility, HFMD

Current diagnosis of male infertility is largely based on how sperm looks or how quickly it can swim.

But Dr Guo Huili from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology wants to make the process more scientific.

To do so, the junior investigator is relying on RNA (ribonucleic acid) translation - a process by which amino acids are put together in order to make proteins.

"It is known that sperm cells carry out RNA translation during a maturation stage called capacitation when they are in the female reproductive tract," Dr Guo explained. "This capacitation stage has to happen before a sperm cell is capable of fertilising an egg."

So the 33-year-old is trying to identify all the RNA that is translated in the sperm cell during this stage. She believes the RNA identified in this process could potentially be a good indicator of sperm quality.

DIAGNOSING INFERTILITY

Having a more accurate diagnosis method will help doctors in recommending the appropriate technique to use for assisted reproduction.

DR GUO HUILI, who is trying to identify all the RNA that is translated in the sperm cells during capacitation.

"Right now, in the fertility clinic, the quality of a sperm sample is evaluated only by outward appearance by looking under the microscope," she said. "Having a more accurate diagnosis method will help doctors in recommending the appropriate technique to use for assisted reproduction."

Current methods of assisted reproduction include in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) - where an egg is fertilised outside the human body - as well as intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection, a method which is more costly than IVF.

The latter differs from conventional IVF as the embryologist selects a single sperm to be injected directly into an egg, instead of fertilisation taking place in a dish where many sperms are placed near an egg.

Scientists around the world are now putting RNA under the microscope so they can study how changes in the RNA can lead to diseases such as cancer.

However, back when she was doing her PhD studies in biology at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, most of the existing knowledge was still in DNA function, Dr Guo pointed out. It was this lack of information that sparked her curiosity to find out more.

Apart from studying male infertility, she also hopes RNA can help her to develop an antiviral drug to combat hand, foot and mouth disease or HFMD, something close to her heart since she has two children, aged three and 10 months.

Currently, there is no drug or vaccine available to treat it, other than relieving symptoms such as fever and rash.

Typically, when a virus attacks the body, it shuts down cell machinery and stops RNA translation. But there are exceptions.

"We are trying to identify all the host RNAs whose translation remains untouched by this shutdown. If these RNAs are spared, it implies the virus needs to keep translating them in order for the virus to propagate and survive," she said. "These host RNAs would be good candidates for development of antiviral drugs because their continued translation is required by the virus."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2016, with the headline 'Injecting vigour into scientific research'. Print Edition | Subscribe