In brief

A*STAR Research speaks to outgoing A*STAR leaders Sir David Philip Lane and Professor Ellen Birgit Lane on their experiences as research pioneers, mentors and collaborators.

© A*STAR Research

Science, a calling of a lifetime

27 Apr 2023

As Sir David and Birgit Lane leave Singapore, A*STAR Research commemorates the legacy that the couple continues to build for their students, colleagues and the nation’s wider research ecosystem.

Sir David Philip Lane and Ellen Birgit Lane are two big names in science—he in the study of cancer, she in that of skin. Over the years, both of them have become mainstays of the Singaporean scientific community, fostering young talent, building labs and institutions from scratch, making important discoveries in their respective fields and creating a culture of interdisciplinary research that will be felt for decades to come.

Toward the end of their long and much-deserved list of collective honours is the title of grandparents to four young children. That number will soon grow to five, Birgit Lane revealed in an interview with A*STAR Research. For the couple, the move home to the UK means spending more time with family. Sir David also looks forward to renewing hobbies such as tennis and hiking.

This new stage of their life isn’t a final goodbye to Singapore’s scientific community, said Birgit Lane. She is still working on several papers with local collaborators, and Sir David is retaining his role as chairman of the board at Chugai Pharmabody, the Singapore-based drug innovations company. The couple also recently launched AbAsia, a company focused on manufacturing critical reagents for COVID-19 diagnostics and other biomedical applications, so they will still be frequent visitors to Singapore.

Their science journey continues: “Science isn’t just an occupation,” Birgit Lane shared; for both of them, science has been the calling of a lifetime.

Sir David Lane: An enthusiasm for embracing the unknown

Sir David’s first foray into science was at the age of 10, when he peered into a simple plastic microscope and discovered the abundance of protozoa living in pond water. He has always been fascinated with science. When he was 19, he lost his father to cancer. “I think that had a huge effect on me,” Sir David told A*STAR Research. “It forced me to grow up and be self-reliant. It also exposed me to the full burden of cancer, not only on the individual but also on the whole affected family.”

Years later, he found himself working at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), studying the SV40 T antigen. At the time, scientists were noticing that after an SV40 virus infection, a single protein caused normal cells to behave like cancer cells. “But no one knew how it worked,” he recalled. Working persistently on the disease, Sir David and his colleagues discovered, in 1979, that a cellular protein called p53 was at the root of such cancers.

After its discovery, p53 went on to be voted the molecule of the year in 1993, and Sir David’s continuing work on it has led to a dizzying 97,605 citations across over 400 publications. After working at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, ICRF, and the University of Dundee in the UK, he joined A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) in 2004.

From this first role in Singapore, he then held several positions across the A*STAR ecosystem, becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC) in 2007; Chairman of the Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) in 2008; and finally Chief Scientist of A*STAR in 2009. “I greatly enjoyed all my roles at A*STAR,” shared Sir David. “I will miss the regular meetings with all my lab members and colleagues.”

On 25 August 2022, the Honorary Citizen Award was conferred on Sir David by Mdm Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, at a ceremony held at the Istana. The award is the highest form of recognition bestowed by the Singapore Government for outstanding contributions by an individual to the country’s growth
and development.

When asked about his favourite memories in A*STAR, Sir David has plenty. The first are the early years of the ETC (now known as the Experimental Drug Development Centre), which for him were a great adventure. “I was delighted with the team we set up, and the speed with which we got going,” he shared.

Chandra Verma, Senior Principal Investigator at the Bioinformatics Institute (BII) and a long-time collaborator of Sir David, describes the years they spent together as the years that “catalysed the importance of rigour, of relentless inquiry without borders of disciplines”.

Citing collaborations with his colleagues and the IMCB zebrafish community, Sir David said that he also greatly enjoyed the work his team did on the evolution of p53 itself and Mdm2, a protein that regulates it. “Personally, it was a great moment when we found that Mdm2 was present in the most primitive invertebrate—but had been lost in the evolution of genomes of the worm and the fruit fly. This was my first own bioinformatics project!” he said.

Later, Sir David’s work on peptide drug development was also a major highlight, as it led to collaborations with Ipsen and the Merck Group. Particularly memorable for him was the day that IMCB’s Christopher Brown showed that a stapled peptide designed by Verma’s team had potent p53-activating functionality. The peptide, which bound to the regulatory Mdm2 much more tightly than p53 itself, marked a significant discovery in a career full of breakthroughs. “The buzz when you see results like that is priceless,” said Sir David.

He is still surprised, Sir David shared, when looking back at his career. “Things always seem to be difficult and take a long time, and it can feel like nothing is working,” he expressed. “But then, when I look back, I realise I have done a lot of different things successfully. I always feel that I could do more.”

This attitude is something that his long-time colleagues, like Zhaoru Lin, know well about Sir David. “As a scientist, he’s constantly updating himself and blending different disciplines,” said Lin, a former Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Project Manager at A*STAR’s p53Lab. “He incorporated [that] into the p53Lab’s work culture and possibly influenced the greater research ecosystem to encourage cross-disciplinary research. He believes that science is fun and has the skill of making his science exciting and understandable to everyone.”

Sir David’s colleagues describe his interdisciplinary approach as infectious. Verma said that Sir David had helped bridge engineering and biological disciplines, while also encouraging entrepreneurship. The biotech ecosystem of A*STAR, said Verma, was shaped by this approach: connecting people from different fields and translating their research to clinics and the industry.

For Verma, what was especially remarkable about working with Sir David was his encouragement for embracing the unknown.

Left to right: Sir David, Singapore President Halimah Yacob and Birgit Lane at the 2022 Honorary Citizen Awards ceremony at the Istana.

© A*STAR Research

Professor Birgit Lane: A passion for science and compassion for people

Birgit Lane is internationally known for her work on the structure and function of keratins, particularly with the keratin cytoskeleton and its role in diseases. Before joining A*STAR, she led a lab at the ICRF’s Clare Hall Laboratories and served in several positions at the University of Dundee, namely: the Cox Chair of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and Director of the Cancer Research UK Cell Structure Research Group.

Across these roles, she was instrumental in developing the scientific understanding of intermediate filaments, about which little was then known. Her work on intermediate filaments led to key discoveries in the fields of skin disorders and genetics.

From University College London, where she and Sir David first met, and the ICRF (now Cancer Research UK), where they both worked for many years, they decided in 2004 to come and work in Singapore. This marked the start of two of her biggest contributions to A*STAR and the country’s wider research ecosystem: building the Institute of Medical Biology (IMB) from scratch and subsequently developing the Skin Research Institute of Singapore (SRIS).

Birgit Lane sees the success of these two institutions as highlights of her time with A*STAR, describing IMB and SRIS as “massive, ambitious enterprises that came to fruition”.

“Birgit’s lab was the first dedicated skin lab at A*STAR studying epithelial biology,” said John Common, Principal Investigator at the A*STAR Skin Research Labs (A*SRL) within SRIS. “But she leaves a strong legacy of many more labs now working in the skin space in areas such as inflammation, wound healing, microbiome, ageing, pigmentation and infection.”

Common, who has been Birgit Lane’s long-time collaborator, told A*STAR Research that her work turned the late Sydney Brenner’s vision for a translational institute for molecular medicine into a reality when she transformed the then-Centre for Molecular Medicine into a fully-fledged institute, as the IMB.

Her efforts also pulled together a stellar lineup of researchers in genetic diseases, stem cell research and skin biology that attracted more top scientists over the years, said Common. Many are still in A*STAR today, while others have gone on to lead spinoff companies like Nuevocor, a biotechnology company developing novel gene therapies to prevent and treat heart disease, and Paracrine Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company developing stem exosomes (small vesicles released by stem cells) for use in regenerative medicine.

Yi Zhen Ng, a Principal Investigator at A*SRL and formerly a PhD student under Birgit Lane, credits her mentor’s leadership and vision for the success of IMB and SRIS. “As founding Executive Director of IMB, and subsequently Chief Scientist of SRIS, she charted a path to bring these institutes to international renown,” Ng shared with A*STAR Research.

For Leah Vardy, a Senior Principal Investigator at SRIS, Birgit Lane’s work has always been grounded in two things: her passion for science and compassion for people. It was the latter trait that “drew many in and created an atmosphere of collaborative excitement and energy to tackle scientific problems,” said Vardy.

This commitment was especially evident in her efforts to support women in STEM. “We all know that this is not just a Singaporean problem,” Birgit Lane shared. “There are very large numbers of women coming into training in the biological sciences, but there is a steady drop off after that. Very few get to the top.”

Though she said that things are better now than in earlier times for women researchers, a lot more still needs to be done—and it must be done conscientiously by institutional leaders and search committees. “We just have to keep thinking about this and working at it, and empowering young people to take on bigger leadership roles earlier,” Birgit Lane said. “You have to look for these women early on.”

Students and collaborators also point out that Birgit Lane’s compassion for people extends outside of the lab, and to hospitals and clinics. “She had always kept patients at the heart of her research, working closely with local and international clinicians to shine light on rare diseases such as epidermolysis bullosa (EB), an inherited skin blistering disease,” shared Ng. “She has inspired me to pursue a career to tackle the problem of chronic wounds in ageing Asian populations.”

Outside of her research, Birgit Lane also played a key role in founding patient advocacy groups like Debra Singapore, which promotes awareness about EB and works to support those afflicted with it.

For her part, Birgit Lane shared that much of what she has achieved in the past two decades in Singapore is thanks to the people she has worked with. “One of the things that struck me early on was how easy it was to do things, how people seemed to work together very well. It seemed that everyone wanted to be part of a team and make the team succeed,” said Birgit Lane. “It was really fun because things happen more quickly that way. I felt that things move very fast in Singapore because people work together well.”

Birgit Lane also expressed her gratitude to Josephine Teo, Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information, who had been A*STAR’s Human Resource Director when she and Sir David first arrived in Singapore all those years ago. She shared that Teo helped them greatly when they were first settling down in Singapore and still establishing their research labs at A*STAR.

Birgit Lane and her team from the Epithelial Biology Lab, at A*STAR’s Institute of Medical Biology.

© A*STAR Research

A lasting legacy

Moving forward, Birgit Lane has two hopes for SRIS and the greater research community in Singapore: to make Singapore’s skin research significant on an international scale, with SRIS as a leading international institute; and for the institute to continue to be managed inclusively, which she believes is “utterly essential if Singapore’s voice is to remain audible”.

Sir David, on his part, has three wishes for Singapore’s research environment: stable funding, cutting-edge equipment and an environment that encourages young scientists to take risks and innovate. “I am a great believer in the power of creative science,” said Sir David. “It’s hard to know where exactly breakthroughs will come from, but the right environment is so important.”

After two decades in Singapore, the couple are leaving behind more than just life-saving discoveries and thriving research labs. They have nurtured a community of research groups who are set to take up the mantle of exploring the unknown.

What many people quickly learn about working with the Lanes, said Declan Lunny, Research Manager at A*STAR and former histology technician to both Lanes, is that they foster focused and fun teams, always treating others with respect. “Being valued from early on gave me motivation and a personal drive to do my best on a project,” Lunny told A*STAR Research.

That is not Lunny’s experience alone. When asked about Birgit Lane’s biggest impact, Ng highlighted her warmth and generosity of spirit with members of her research lab. Lin, who now serves as Chief Operating Officer at AbAsia BioLabs, credited Sir David for shaping her career, saying, “None of it would have happened if David had not taken a chance on me back in 2017.”

Students and collaborators describe how the Lanes always made it a point to connect junior investigators to more senior researchers, finding ways to let young scientists be heard. They also taught junior scientists by example—both in terms of the pursuit of scientific discovery, and in the day-to-day work of crafting grants, shaping research plans and managing labs to create the biggest impact.

As Sir David and Birgit Lane take a well-deserved step back after years of relentless service to the scientific community in Singapore, their legacies will be felt for years to come.

Birgit Lane said that aside from the fantastic food, what she’ll miss the most about working full-time in Singapore are her colleagues. “The people here have been so supportive and friendly, and it has been great fun to work with them.”

Agreeing with her, Sir David said, “I hope that I inspired some great people into science. I hope I helped people appreciate and understand the importance of scientific knowledge and the scientific process.”

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This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group