On one of her middle school days, Lee Eun-ju saw a poster that depicted a tree bearing both tomato and a potato. While most teenagers her age would’ve just passed it by, Lee found the picture terrific and felt an urge to create something like it.
So began her journey toward a stem cell researcher.
Lee majored in biotechnology at Daegu University, got her masters in genetic engineering from Kyungbuk National University, and her Ph.D. in agricultural biotechnology at Seoul National University.
Professor Lee is driven by an overarching purpose: getting stem cell therapies into the hands of patients.
“Everything I do has a common, unifying purpose,” Lee said. “People who need stem cell therapies can’t get them because they’re costly. I’m trying to lower the unit cost of these therapies and commercialize them for mass production. This creates profit for companies and provides a method to produce imported cells safely and uniformly.”
|Professor Lee Eun-ju makes a point discussing the future of Korea’s stem cell research industry, during an interview with Korea Biomedical Review.|
If the industry manages to commercialize these treatments, it may get rid of the need for surgery and serve as a cure for diseases considered incurable, she said, in an interview with Korea Biomedical Review.
Accordingly, the professor’s curriculum vitae are full of patents and technology transfer agreements with businesses researching and developing stem cells. They include hallmark domestic stem cell companies such as CJ, Medipost, Macrogen, and Daewoong.
Driven by purpose
According to Lee, all her work has one underlying theme: Human application of stem cell therapies.
“Clinical application is my final objective. We’re working with human stem cells. It can’t just stop at producing some papers or remain as pure research,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, in the academic field, the final goal of the research is publishing papers in renowned international journals such as Nature. My objective for human cell research is a real-life influence, not a paper.”
However, academia is a paper-oriented community, she noted, and so are the patents. Many technology patents, particularly in the biomedical field, needs development, she said, pointing out that most Korean companies seem stuck at this development stage.
Lee believes something will come out of all the clinical studies and progress being made in stem cell research. “You can’t say there’s a ‘bio-bubble’ if the potential is there. It’s just not entirely developed yet,” she said.
Her patent regarding mesenchymal stem cells works to develop that potential by getting rid of a current limitation in Korean stem cell research -- obtaining stem cells in the scope of government regulations.
Stuck in scandal of decades ago
Korean scientists in this field are still suffering from the aftermath of what is known as the Hwang Woo-suk scandal. According to Lee, the incident set back stem cell research almost 20 years. The scandal encompassed a Korean researcher who violated critical ethical and academic norms. Some stem cell-related officials also failed to exercise caution in obtaining stem cells that come from fertilized ovum.
Government regulators tightened their grips, aggravating skepticism. Korean stem cell researchers had few other choices but to take a detour. They turned away from pursuing new stem cell research and began working with the relatively “safer” adult stem cells.
In the meantime, scientists in Japan, the U.S., and Russia took the lead by pulling off new breakthroughs in the field of induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells. As Prof. Lee sees it, Korean researchers reached similar results at the time, but could not publish them because of public distrust, both at home and abroad, of Korean researchers because of the Hwang Woo-suk fiasco.
Now researchers here are just playing catch-up, Lee said, noting that Korea needs to regain footing with IPS as a fast follower. As in any field and with any country, however, constraints still exist. Researchers are under constant pressure to get government funding, which is doled out based only on tangible progress. Scientists are, in a sense, forced to push out papers, patents, and evidence of work on a strict timeline to secure scarce research funds.
Lee, too, deals with this pressure. She has been able to handle it sufficiently through obtaining patents and striking technology and know-how licensing deals with stem cell companies.
“Patents should be used to introduce technology and help technology transfers,” she said. “Companies pursue technology transfers because they see value in it. If the value isn’t there, they won’t take it. That means there has to be potential for real-life application.”
Sensible government regulation key to stem cell therapies
To develop the potential, however, government regulations should get more helpful than now, she said. It also needs to regulate in correct and productive ways. “You can’t just relax all regulations. Regulations must be relaxed but in desirable manners. Moderation is the key, but I’ve noticed that striking a balance has always been the most difficult task,” she said.
Against this backdrop, one of Lee’s most notable works involves patenting a technology that allows researchers to pull mesenchymal stem cells from human pluripotent stem cells consistently, and create more mesenchymal stem cells from it. The methodology was licensed out and is being used in clinical trials, she noted.
Professor Lee is stepping up research and collaboration in this field, despite the skepticism running through the scientific community and among the public, because she believes people will ultimately benefit from stem cell therapies.
To up-and-coming scientists, she advises discarding the illusion of research as being a walk in the park.
“You won’t be drinking coffee during your break from the laboratory on a sunny day outside,” Lee said. “It’s dangerous. It’s dirty. It’s difficult.” She recalled that she had to create everything from scratch during her studies.
“I had to make a mouse box by bringing in a plastic kimchi box and tear out the top. I created the feeding box and everything by hand. If you consider what I went through, the working environment with the technology we have now is great,” she said.
The only way researchers can push ahead with a task so complicated as this is the realization of doing what you want to do, and to believe in what you are doing, Lee emphasized.
“You can’t trust or look to other people, such as your friends or even your parents, in finding what you want to do. You need to want to do it, even if it makes life for others around you difficult,” she said. “If you feel that there is no path, then you need to make one.”
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