A Chat With A*STAR Chief Scientist, Professor Sir David Lane – Part II
By Ng Yi Zhen | Editorials
January 22, 2013
In Part II of our interview with A*STAR’s chief scientist, Prof. Sir David Lane, we discuss Cyclacel, A*STAR, and Singapore’s R&D landscape.
AsianScientist (Jan. 21, 2013) – Asian Scientist Magazine caught up last week with A*STAR’s chief scientist, Prof. Sir David Lane, to discuss his recent win of the 2012 Cancer Research UK Lifetime Achievement Award.
In the first of a two-part series, Prof. Lane described his lifelong journey with p53, from its initial discovery in 1979 until today.
Here, we discuss his work at the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Singapore, where he has served in key strategic roles for more than a decade. More recently, he was appointed chairman of the board of Chugai Pharmabody Research Pte. Ltd. (CPR), which opened at A*STAR’s Biopolis research complex in July 2012.
As the founder of Cyclacel Pharmaceutics and chairman of the board of Chugai Pharmabody, what were the challenges that you faced?
It is a big challenge to adapt mentally between very basic science and industrial science, because they are different processes. At its purest, one is simply for the love of knowledge, and the other is simply to make as much money as possible. But the reality is that there is a very big middle ground. A lot of people in the pharmaceutical industry are there because they passionately want to make drugs that work. A lot of academics are very interested in seeing their work be meaningful. They don’t want simply to only have a publication. So there is in fact a lot of common ground.
The thing that I found to be difficult is mixing passion with the practical aspects. Managing that process is something that you learn with time and you have to moderate your expectations a little bit. So when people come to work in industry with me, I always tell them that you are working as a team and you are working towards a very clear goal. That project that you are working on may get stopped and you might have to start working on another one, but you shouldn’t take that as a personal failure or an insult.
But I’ve always been interested in trying to make things happen so I’ve always enjoyed myself with industry. One thing good about it is its rigor. You have to be amazingly rigorous when you work in industry because this is going to go into a person and it has to work. So actually, experience in industry science can help academics to bring in that kind of necessary rigor.
In Chugai Pharmabody, everybody’s lab book has to be signed and everyone has to know what they’ve done in a very reproducible way. I think that’s the way we should do science. I think sometimes in very academic labs, people can lose sight of the need to be that rigorous and then we see papers published in very good journals that other people can’t reproduce. So we need to be careful as academic scientists to maintain a very high standard.
Was the process of starting Cyclacel an organic one?
It came about from frustration actually. I thought these protein interactions were very exciting and pharmaceutical companies were saying to me, “Well, we don’t think it’s ever going to work, we don’t want to do that.” So I thought, “Well, I’d start my own company and do it.” It was as naive as that.
I went to Cancer Reaearch UK. Again, they were very helpful. They had a very good system for starting companies. I tried to get it going, but they said you have to give up your university job and you have to move to London. I didn’t want to do either of those things and we had a couple of goes and couldn’t get it going.
Eventually I met a guy called Chris Evans who said, “It’s fine David, let’s do it anyway.” So we did. We started it in Dundee. I kept my academic job and I ran the company at the same time and we brought in a lot of people. We raised SGD$60 million in venture capital in one go and off we went! And it’s still going. I’m not involved anymore. The company is listed on NASDAQ and has three drugs in clinical trials, one of which is in a late stage clinical trial and looks promising.
Would you encourage academics to start companies?
I think it’s a great thing to be entrepreneurial; If you think about it, that’s what creates jobs. It creates wealth. It creates change in society. Business is very important and businessmen and women are to be praised. They are putting enormous personal risk and energy into it, and entrepreneurs do that even more. I think it’s great to start businesses and I actually loved starting Cyclacel. But it’s not for everybody. I think some people should just stay as pure scientists and that’s what they’d be best at.
Other than being an entrepreneur, as the chief scientist of A*STAR, you have played a pivotal role in shaping Singapore’s R&D landscape over the past ten years. How do you see this journey?
Singapore is amazing – the sort of will to do things, to get things done, and to do new things. But it’s also a very impatient place. It expects things to happen very quickly. It is quite hard for science – particularly biological science – to work at that pace. So I think it’s challenging, because the expectations are so high.
For most people who have worked in Singapore, the level of bureaucracy can be frustrating at times and I think it’s partly because it’s government money and there’s great anxiety to make sure that money is not wasted. But I think in general it’s been wonderful, something happens nearly every day.
Which direction do you see the research in Singapore heading in the future?
I always felt that Singapore has a unique advantage in terms of the very high quality of engineering. The dream of A*STAR, which was to bring engineering and biology together, is still a great dream. If we think about what really made biology move, a lot of it is technology. You think about a machine for sequencing, you think about a flow cytometer, you think about a modern microscope… These are tremendous pieces of engineering, and you know we still haven’t quite got that together.
I’ve been working with the A*STAR Joint Council Office and everybody else to try and make that happen and I think it will happen. You can see it coming in now from many different directions because of the need to replace oil as a feedstock for chemicals. The chemical industry is getting very interested in biology. How can I take the leftovers from palm oil and turn that into something useful? Suddenly you are into engineering cells and synthetic biology. Maybe you can make a cell that will take this material and turn it into something useful. So it is happening and I would like to see more of that in Singapore.
I would also like to see people building equipment in Singapore. We should be able to do that very well actually and I don’t think it’s something that we have quite found yet. One of the problems I suppose is the tremendous attraction to these blockbuster drugs I’ve spoken of. If we can do that, all our problems will be solved. But actually, that’s terribly hard.
Setting up a company that makes a machine or a company that makes a product that is sold to the research community is a lot easier. It’s not without challenges – it (the product) has to be very good. But we probably should be building up the business environment here, so that the science in Singapore would have a close interaction between biology, engineering, and companies making products.
If you look historically, what has happened for a typical bench scientist in biology these days is that they use a lot of commercial kits and apparatus to do their work and that’s a tremendous market. We could be tapping into that market. It would suit Singapore very well to be in that area, because it is something that we could do well.
Outside of research, is there anything that you found as being uniquely Singapore?
I find Singapore an amazingly interesting place because of the people. There’s a diversity of people and there’s a mixture of ambition. I love the fact that people are really keen to get their children educated here. People do make all sorts of fun of Singapore, but the reality is people (in Singapore) are trying to create a society which is good to live in, and give people a chance. I really admire that.
To me, a society where everybody has a chance to do well is the right society. Of course that was the American dream, but in a way Singapore is delivering better. It is a question of everybody having education opportunity, everybody having access to reasonable healthcare, and controlling crime. So actually Singapore is an amazingly free place, despite what people say, because you can go out at night without much fear of being mugged. That’s tremendous freedom. How much you have to compromise to get that to work is always an issue, and I think it’s not an easy one. But I think Singapore has found a reasonable balance.
I just have to ask this question, because we Singaporeans love our food. What is your favorite local food?
I really do love the local food here. When I go back to the U.K., it feels so bland! I like spicy. I personally really like beef rendang. Singapore noodles are also really good. Everybody who comes to Singapore knows that the food is fantastic.
As a very successful researcher, what are your pearls of wisdom for budding scientists?
I am an amazingly optimistic person. I just don’t know where that came from. So optimism is a very good thing. I think you must not listen to what other people say too much. People will always have opinions about what you are doing, what other people are thinking, what so and so said. I think you have to be quite self-contained and make your own mind up.
I would say it sounds so simple – making good reagents that other people want is immensely helpful. My career has a lot to do with making good antibodies and peptides that worked and were helpful, and then giving them out. I think that is a tremendous lesson. If you just think about game theory, it’s just the best thing to do as a scientist. The more you give, the more you get back. So we made antibodies to p53 in zebrafish and within a year, everybody in the zebrafish community loved us to bits.
If you are starting out as a Ph.D. student, look at your field, at what’s not working, and see if you can come up with solutions. What is in this kit? How does it work? What can I do to make it better? Is there a reagent missing that would make and enormous difference? If I make a cell line that did this, would it have an enormous effect? And then give it to everybody. Simple!
Part I of the interview was published on Tuesday, January 15. An abbreviated version of the interview will be published in the upcoming issue of INNOVATION Magazine.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Ng Yi Zhen.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.