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THE SINGAPORE MAGAZINE OF RESEARCH,
TECHNOLOGY AND EDUCATION
About Innovation
SPOTLIGHT:
Useless" Research Can Have Unexpected Results - Like Winning the Nobel Prize

aul Nurse observed that humble yeast patterns when subjected to certain chemicals and environmental conditions. He discovered the gene that regulates cell division - a factor in rampant cell proliferation such as that occurring in cancer growth. He made the connection with humans and all other living creatures by isolating the same gene in other organisms. For his contribution to cancer research and cell biology, the English monarchy knighted him in 1999. The importance of his work was further acknowledged when he won the Nobel Prize in 2001.

INNOVATION's Lay Leng TAN spoke to the unassuming chief executive of Cancer Research UK to learn about advances on the cancer research front and to discuss the potential rewards of going into basic research.

Innovation: What do you see as the latest trend in cancer research and what technologies may be used in possible therapies?
Nurse: In the last 20 years or so, researchers have provided a much improved molecular description of what happens in different cancers and cancer cells that can now open up a much more rational approach to treatment and prevention. For example, we now know that cancer is a somatic genetic disease: certain genes have importance in cancer - as many as 200-500. We shall be able to predict much more accurately in the next 10-20 years people who are more likely to suffer from the disease because of genes inherited from a parent.

A difference exists between cancer and normal cells that scientists can now properly describe, and we can design drugs that target this difference - something not possible till the last five years or so. We will be able to sort out environmental effects on cancer as well, which means the capability to give better advice on the effects of the environment.

Innovation: Do you see gene therapy or even nanotechnology as a possible solution to the cancer problem?
Nurse: Gene therapy may have uses, although I think it has been over-hyped. We should continue exploring it, because it can provide a new way to alter biological outcomes. But, like all sorts of new possibilities, people claim too much and say the innovation will solve many problems. Earlier we had monoclonal antibodies; now it's nanotechnology. Everything contributes, but I doubt if anything will ever be quite so effective as its supporters argued when it first came out.
Innovation: What do you see as the most viable solution to treating cancer?
Nurse: Prevention will be extremely important and the most effective way to treat the disease will be with small molecules and biological therapies like immunotherapy, treatment with proteins and stimulating immune responses. Gene therapy also has a role to play, but I just don't think it provides a magical cure-all.
Innovation: When you talk about proteins to stimulate antibodies or substances to eliminate cancer cells, are you also referring to herbal solutions or natural products?
Nurse: Yes, as well. Herbal solutions and natural products can also work to defend the body, and much of the pharmaceutical industry in earlier days was built on defined chemicals isolated from these sources.

Aspirin, a very common drug, became a medicine because someone noticed that chewing white willow bark had therapeutic effects. We should always be aware of folk remedies and herbal medicines. Knowing that much, the pharmaceutical industry can try to purify the active principles that may make the substance more defined and maybe less dangerous.

Innovation: Which area of research are you focusing on now?
Nurse: I am a basic scientist, so I am interested in very fundamental mechanisms. I worked in the past on what controls the division of cells. I'm still interested in that problem and how cell division is regulated. But I am also interested in what determines cell shape; cells in any particular tissue have particular shape, and observing what happens when theychange or are altered can be important in the study of the spread of cells from the original cancer site to another place in the body.
Innovation: Have you discovered a link between the cell shape and a possible cancer cause?
Nurse: No, it is still early days.
Innovation: Have you any collaborators in Singapore?
Nurse: I have no local research collaboration, but I do sit on the advisory board of the new Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory. It's always possible that I will link up with colleagues here for some research, but I have to run a very big organisation (Cancer Research) in the United Kingdom, so even keeping my own research going in my laboratory presents difficulties.
Innovation: How do you find the quality of the research work conducted in Singapore?
Nurse: I am impressed with the high quality of the basic cell molecular biology and genetics work at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. I think its quality is equivalent to work done at very good institutions in Europe, the United States and Japan.
Innovation: What do you think of the support fundamental research requires?
Nurse: I feel very strongly, passionately in fact, about the need to support strong basic research initiatives, because if you limit yourself to what will produce a commercial advantage, the policy is too short-term. We need to have a short-, a medium- and a long-term strategy in science; the short-term and the medium-term strategies have to deal with commercial applications - how discoveries can increase health, create wealth, and improve the quality of life - all the things with which society is concerned.

But if we want to continue to make discoveries in the future, we also have to invest in basic research now for applications 20 or 30 years from now. If you take action on commercial short-term opportunities only, the whole system will eventually collapse.

Innovation: Do you see a clear line between basic and applied research?
Nurse: No, I think in many ways it constitutes an artificial distinction. In the past, the basic and applied sciences were often active at the same time. I think that commercially driven science has to operate in a different sort of way because of who pays the bills and who controls the results. Today the basic processes of applied and basic science do not differ significantly.
Innovation: However, could going into commercial research have undesirable consequences for a scientist?
Nurse: I think that because a conflict of interest could result, the scientist should look into the decision very carefully. Although the processes of basic and applied science are similar, the way they are paid for and the rewards that derive from them may differ. Basic science research is often publicly owned and supports the public good; it gains from openness. When somebody owns commercial applications, however, he or she usually hopes to make a profit. Then you have to be more careful because the work is not so open and it doesn't support the same kind of scientific atmosphere that you get with basic research.

What can generate big confusion is a publicly supported laboratory whose knowledge and background get diverted into a commercial venture - this can destroy the environment out of which the research grows. Real opportunities exist, but you have to be careful that you don't mix up these activities. There should be a firewall between basic publicly funded open research and less open profit-driven research.

Innovation: Where did your biggest support come from, allowing you to produce your breakthrough work?
Nurse: I initially received support from the UK government through the Research Council, but the major support came from the cancer research organisation - the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, now Cancer Research UK.

It is crucial for young scientists to have good advice and moral support from their colleagues. Many thought the work that I did at the beginning had no commercial interest, no cancer interest, and no application. That has been proved not to be the case. Institutions can help by building up a community of mutual support and a collegiate atmosphere.

Innovation: Would you say that the teacher or mentor plays a very important part here?
Nurse: Yes, but mentors must not try to rule. They must simply advise, for it is very important not to slip back into the old fashioned model of a mentor who governs or controls.
Innovation: How would you advise young people who plan to go into research?
Nurse: Be bold. Do not take too much notice of the advice given by others. You have to be passionate and driven and then do what you think is right. You can listen to what people say but then you must make your own decisions.
Innovation: What attributes must a researcher possess?
Nurse: Passion and knowledge. You won't be satisfied until you know what the answer is. Usually with that passion comes creativity. The wanting to know something - that's the driving force.

To succeed, you have to have a number of other attributes - you have to have reasonable intelligence and good organisational skills, and as a scientist you have to be creative and search in other places, different from other people. It is no good to be creative and imaginative if you are not also rigorous and respectful of evidence. Scepticism and self-doubt are also critical.

I think serendipity always plays a part because you never quite know where you're going. Good scientists always stay alert to the unexpected - you make an observation that you didn't expect to make. For instance, Alexander Fleming saw fungus kill bacteria; his mind was thinking about that problem, and he pursued it. Not really a matter of chance - it's a matter of being attentive and open to new observations.

Innovation: Do you think your passion for flying and astronomy provides new perspectives that encourage seeing things differently?
Nurse: I do. If you focus on your work all the time, you lose perspective. Doing other things takes your mind away from your problem, so when you come back, you have a fresh view.
Innovation: Did you notice any special advantages following your receipt of the Nobel Prize?
Nurse: Yes - there is one problem though - everybody thinks that you are an expert about everything [laughs]. The advantages rest mostly in the more public sector. Within the area of science, I think people can be quite tough on a Nobel laureate because they feel that the prize winner must maintain impossibly high standards; you see it when they review your subsequent work or when you try to get work published. The rest of the community may be tougher on somebody who has won a major prize.
Innovation: Must researchers get overseas exposure to improve their work?
Nurse: When I was young, people said that I had to go to the US, but I never did, so overseas exposure is not necessary. However, you must operate on a world stage. Singapore has to be aware of this fact, but I think the country has such a good reputation that no researcher should feel inhibited by staying here.

In the past, resources in the US were so great that research got very good support. But I think work can be done at home, and we saw two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics come from Japan last year.

Innovation: What are your parting words for researchers in Singapore?
Nurse: I find the quality of biological research very high in Singapore, and scientists should be proud of what they are doing in a number of institutes and universities. For a small country, it does extremely well.

What Singapore has is people, and it's a question of training and recruiting individuals who work locally as well as foreigners - you have to develop a training programme for your best minds.

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INNOVATION magazine is a joint publication of Nanyang Technological University, National University of Singapore and World Scientific Publishing Co Pte Ltd