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TheBigStory
 

Scientist is first S'pore citizen to join elite network

Published on Nov 6, 2012 6:00 AM
 
Dr Jonathan Loh, 35, helped to invent a new, safer method to create stem cells. -- PHOTO: A*STAR

This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Nov 6, 2012.

Dr Jonathan Loh is the first Singaporean citizen to be elected to the prestigious global World Technology Network (WTN).

The 35-year-old scientist's work with stem cells has been featured on the covers of science journals, and he helped to invent a new, safer method to create the cells. This method was ranked among the top 10 breakthroughs of 2010 by the prestigious journal Science.

The WTN, founded in 1997 by American entrepreneur James Clark, gathers the brightest minds in science and technology. Its members include Dr Craig Venter, one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome, and Mr Jonathan Ive, senior vice-president of industrial design at Apple Inc.

Dr Loh's inclusion was formalised last month.

Each year, WTN members select finalists for awards, in categories that range from law and policy to biotechnology, medicine and health.

The finalists automatically become WTN fellows. Previous representatives from Singapore have been permanent residents.

Dr Loh, a principal investigator at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), was a finalist in the biotechnology category this year, but did not win.

The Singapore Polytechnic biotechnology graduate specialises in stem cells, which can transform into other types of cells and which thus have the potential to be used to replace damaged or diseased tissue.

When he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School in 2009, his team was the first in the world to convert human blood cells into stem cells. This created readily available sources of stem cells and is an alternative to harvesting the cells from embryos, a process which poses ethical concerns.

His team also came up with a new, safer way to create stem cells.

Previously, parts of viruses were used to reprogramme cells into stem cells. The new method eliminates the need for viruses, making the stem cells safer. This earned the team the Science journal accolade.

Harvard University faculty member James Collins, who was Dr Loh's mentor, said: "His work has enabled a broad range of biotech applications. He is a young star in this field."

Dr Loh said his current work at the IMCB involves developing new tools to create clinical-grade cells and tissues for medical use. "My main interest is in finding out how to get the best stem cells. Science should be impactful and be beneficial to human health care," he said.

zengkun@sph.com.sg

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