Cure for Parkinson's disease? Award-winning life scientist's stem cell research may help

Dr Ng Huck Hui's research has seen him clinch the coveted President’s Science Award.
Dr Ng Huck Hui's research has seen him clinch the coveted President’s Science Award.PHOTO: A*STAR

President’s Science and Technology Awards (PSTA) winners have come from different backgrounds, such as the team that made Singapore's first commercial satellite, scientists who focus on cancer research, as well as the chairman of Public Utilities Board, whose research in water management contributed to Singapore’s first sewage system.

The common thread among all winners is their spirit of innovation and drive to contribute to a better society.

Dr Ng Huck Hui, executive director of the A*STAR Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), is one such inspirational winner. In 2011, he - together with three other GIS researchers - won the President’s Science Award (PSA).

Their research aimed to answer the question of how to direct the stem cells into their specialised function, and it combined the prowess of genomics technology with regenerative biology to work out the principles of stem cell differentiation.

Dr Ng also won the Young Scientist Award in 2004 and the National Science Award in 2007 for his stellar contributions in stem cell research. In fact, he has dedicated his career to studying stem cells, which are essentially cells that have not defined their specific functions.

Studying how stem cells become different types of cells -  such as skin, blood, liver, or brain cells - can shed light on cellular behaviour. In turn, it allows scientists to study illnesses such as cancer or Parkinson’s disease.

Creating 'mini' midbrains

Dr Ng’s stem cell research has led him to grow mini brains for research. The research was a collaboration between GIS, Duke-NUS and National Neuroscience Institute in 2016, and is the first in the world to have successfully created midbrain tissue.

Only 3mm in width, these mini midbrains mimic the behaviour of the human midbrain, which controls auditory, vision and body movements in the human body.

A possible application of these midbrains would be to grow diseased versions of them in order to study which neurological pathways are affected.

Potentially, scientists may be able to develop treatments for Parkinson’s disease by examining these mini midbrains, where the midbrain functions are severely affected by the loss of chemicals such as dopamine and neuromelanin, leading to slower reactions and impairment of motor skills.

Dr Ng said that mini organs are a growing area of research and development. According to him, many stem cell research laboratories are creating mini versions of organs like the brain, liver, kidney and muscle in order to study diseases related to them. 

Only 3mm in width, these mini midbrains mimic the behaviour of the human midbrain. PHOTO: A*STAR.

3 key factors to be successful life scientist

As the executive director of the GIS, Dr Ng leads more than 200 researchers who study different aspects of the human genome - ranging from infectious diseases to cancer stem cell genomics.

Dr Ng is also recognised globally for his research excellence and is the only associate member based in Singapore nominated to join the European Molecular Biology Organisation (Embo) - a prestigious scientific organisation. 

The life scientist gets his sense of accomplishment not only from the laboratory, but also in training future scientists.

  • Open for submission: President’s Science and Technology Awards

    The annual President's Science and Technology Awards (PSTA) are the highest honours bestowed on exceptional research scientists and engineers in Singapore, to recognise their excellent achievements in science and technology. Any organisation (public or private) based in Singapore that embarks on R&D development and innovation is eligible to submit.

    Project submission deadline: March 24, 2017.

He said: “What is most satisfying is that we trained a new generation of researchers who are well-versed in biology, genomics and data analytics. Many of them are now emerging leaders in science.”

Dr Ng attributes his achievements to three key factors.

First of all, he has the core belief that his work will benefit and contribute to the advancements of science and society.

Secondly, research is wholly a team effort. To this, he gives credit to his research team, which shares similar beliefs and works towards a common goal.

Dr Ng also believes that commitment from the government in promoting and supporting research and development (R&D) is critical.

He said: "Singapore has embarked on a journey to advance the country through investing in R&D. In 2003, I returned to Singapore and experienced the rise of biomedical sciences. A community is formed and the enriched interactions and collaborations have certainly played a paramount role in advancing my research.”

In Singapore, the PSTA recognises exceptional scientists and researchers for excellent work. The award is considered the highest honour to be bestowed on exceptional scientists and researchers in Singapore.

Dr Ng added: “The award is a wonderful boost to the morale of the researcher as well as the community and this spurs them on, as the road towards discovery and invention is a long one.

“Receiving such recognition does also mean that one has the added responsibility to scale new heights in both advancing the research and contributing to the society.”

Dr Ng has a word of advice for the new generation of researchers - to continue charting new and unknown frontiers, noting that their efforts and achievements should be properly recognised by the community itself, and nominated accordingly. 

Encouraging the community to submit research projects for the upcoming PSTA, he said: "The scientific community definitely can benefit from a greater recognition from within the community as well as from the public.

"If you believe that your work as an individual or a team serves as an inspiration for the community, do actively take this opportunity to make an official nomination to the PSTA.”