Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Professor Suh Yoo-Hun

Notable Korean neuroscientist Professor Suh Yoo-Hun has had many breakthroughs—for one, he sequenced a gene closely related to depression and bipolar disorder.

Suh Yoo-Hun
Chaired professor and President of the Neuroscience Research Institute, Gachon University
Founding President of KBRI (Korea Brain Research Institute)
South Korea

AsianScientist (Feb. 11, 2016) – As a small child, Professor Suh Yoo-Hun looked to the sky with wonder at the mysteries of the universe. Now, he leads discovery in one of the universe’s most profound mysteries—the workings of the human brain.

Recently appointed Chaired Professor and President of the Neuroscience Research Institute of Gachon University, following three years as founding president of the Korean Brain Research Institute, Suh traces his journey through the brain for Asian Scientist Magazine.


1. What first drew you to science as a student and neuroscience in particular?

As a child I always used to look to the sky and wonder about the origin of the universe and human life. The brain is small compared to the entire universe, but the mystery of the brain is much larger than the universe. It is also the final frontier of the science of human life and human innovation. This is why, during medical school, I had a strong interest in the mysteries of the brain and why I studied neuroscience after that.


2. Over the course of your career, have there been any mentors that you would like to highlight?

I have had several mentors. The first was Professor Tong Joh, of the Department of Neurology in Cornell University Medical College. Thirty-five years ago, he led me into the field of neuroscience, especially molecular biology research and the study of dopamine and epinephrine.

After I received my PhD, I joined his lab to investigate the molecular biological workings of dopamine and epinephrine in the brain. During my two-year stay there, I finally cloned and sequenced the protein PNMT, which synthesizes epinephrine.

My second mentor was Professor Konrad Beyreuther, Director of the Molecular Biology Institute at Heidelberg University, who I met about 26 years ago. Beyreuther strongly emphasized the importance of research into Alzheimer’s disease. I fully agreed with him on the likely future importance of such research, and so I switched the focus of my research to that. It has been my focus ever since.

My other mentors were Professors Lee Kwang Ho and Park Chan Woong from my medical school. They encouraged me to be a basic medical scientist rather than a clinical doctor. They said to me, you better be a great doctor, like Dr. Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin.

As a doctor, even if you see a hundred patients a day, you will see less than a million over the course of your career. Through basic medical research, you can help so many more people.

Professor Suh Yoo-Hun (right) making a toast with Professor Tong Joh from Cornell University (left) at the International Brain Science symposium. Credit: Professor Suh Yoo-Hun.
Professor Suh Yoo-Hun (right) making a toast with Professor Tong Joh from Cornell University (left) at the International Brain Science symposium. Credit: Professor Suh Yoo-Hun.

3. Could you explain the significance of the enzyme PNMT and your role in its discovery?

PMNT is the gene that synthesizes epinephrine. It is very important in the regulation of blood pressure in the brain stem and for neurological function. It is closely related to hypertension, depression and bipolar disorder.

During my initial research, I cloned, sequenced and evaluated the biological characteristics of PNMT and epinephrine, so that we now know their characteristics and regulation.

My paper was published thirty years ago in 1985. At that time, molecular biological technology was only newly developed. Thirty years ago, it was much more difficult—I had to manually sequence and compare the data myself. Now, we know the complete human gene sequence of 28,000 human genes, and machines perform sequencing automatically!


4. What would you say has been your biggest research breakthrough?

My first breakthrough was in 1994. I proposed the first hypothesis that App-CTs (Amyloid Precursor Protein–Carboxy Terminal Peptide Fragments) including AICD (Amyloid Intra-cellular domain) should be involved in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s Disease by different mechanisms from Aβ (Amyloid β peptide), which was the thinking then. I proved some of my hypotheses in more than 70 papers published in high-profile journals.

My second breakthrough came when I proposed that one of the most promising future therapies for Alzheimer’s should be stem cell therapy. We reported the preventive and therapeutic effects of intravenous, autologous adipose-derived stem cells in Alzheimer’s mice models.


5. In 2012, you found that adipose-derived stem cells could potentially treat Alzheimer’s disease and mentioned clinical trials in 2016. What is the status of this research at the moment?

I discovered a new gene, S100A9. We found that S100A9 knock-down decreases cell death. So, I proposed my second hypothesis that one of the most promising future therapies could be stem cell therapy. [This means that] we can potentially use our own stem cells as protection against Alzheimer’s. This therapy could be revolutionary. We will enter clinical Phase I and II studies in 2016 in a hospital setting.

Professor Suh Yoo-Hun in his office. Credit: Professor Suh Yoo-Hun.
Professor Suh Yoo-Hun in his office. Credit: Suh Yoo-Hun.

6. Has it become more difficult to get your work—especially the stem cell research—accepted after the Hwang Woo-suk controversy? What would you say has been the impact of his fall from grace on the status of research in Korea?

After the Hwang Woo-suk scandal, the Korean government further emphasized the importance of ethics and introduced stricter regulations to protect patients. It became harder to get approval for research from the Korean Food and Drug Administration. Now, the current government and Korea’s President, Park Geun-hye, have emphasized the importance of stem cell research, because if we can do it successfully, it will help patients and become a very good economic driver for Korea.

At the end of 2016, I attended a special committee for stem cells in Korea’s parliament. The government is slowly starting to permit research and applications of therapies to patients, so we will have new regulations of stem cell research.


7. What is the vision for the Korea Brain Research Institute? Why is it necessary for Korea to have such an institute?

The brain is the final frontier of human innovation. While Korea is highly developed in smartphones, they remain based on information technology. Our government wants to go beyond this, to be at the forefront of neurocomputers and neurorobots; neurotechnology will change our world greatly. So the Korean government set up the Korea Brain Research Institute for the development of stem cell applications, neurocomputers and neurorobotics.

Three months ago, I became President of the Neuroscience Research Institute at Gachon University. We are building an 11.74 Tesla MRI for brain science research—existing MRIs are 7 Tesla—so it will be the first in world. With this development, Korea will continue to be a world leader in brain research. I strongly hope we will be the leading center of brain research in North East Asia and the world, and that we will create new brain industries in Korea. As Korean president Park Geun-hye always says, brain research will create new jobs in Korea.


This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click
here to read other articles in the series.

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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Professor Suh Yoo-Hun.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

David trained as a lawyer and historian at the University of Otago, New Zealand, before spending a decade living amongst accountants and financial reporting regulators in New Zealand and Singapore. He views science and technology through the eyes of a novice and loves to help others understand the world around us by turning technical information into clear and enjoyable stories.

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