Ask Medicus

In our last issue of MEDICUS, we asked for burning questions on medical conditions, research and education. We were overwhelmed by your enthusiastic response. We received more questions than we could answer, but our experts have weighed in on three of your biggest questions: how to deal with failure in research, the potential of stem cell therapy to treat brain injuries and what came first—the chicken or the egg.

Without further ado, let us introduce you to the first edition of Ask MEDICUS, our new column where Duke-NUS experts answer your questions.

Our experts, from Duke-NUS’ Signature Research Programmes and Research Centres, as well as our clinical specialists and faculty are here to share their expertise and perspectives. While we can’t answer questions beyond our fields of study, we will attempt to address the relevant and intriguing ones.

So, continue to send us your burning questions and we’ll sate your scientific curiosity.

How do you deal with failure in a project?
How do you deal with failure in a project, and what advice would you give young researchers on picking themselves back up? @huirugotinsta

Response by Wang Hongyan, Professor and Deputy Programme Director, Neuroscience & Behavioural Disorders Programme and Principal Investigator, Laboratory of Neural Stem Cells


It is very common for a project or experiment to not yield good results. In almost all our projects, we experience setbacks in one way or another—it can happen as often as every week, if not every day. To work on research projects, researchers must be well-prepared for failure. On the flip side, following up on some of the “bad” results that are unexpected but reproducible can lead to surprisingly exciting discoveries!

For researchers, failure can come in many different forms: a failed experiment or a project, a rejected manuscript or fellowship/grant application.

After an unsuccessful project, I will analyse the reasons behind the failure and discuss the issues with my mentors and experienced senior members in the lab. If the project is workable but the direction or hypothesis of the project is wrong, I will change the direction or modify the hypothesis. If we have technical issues, I will try to solve them. If the project is totally faulty, I will give it up and work on another project.

So, my advice to the young researchers I mentor is to always look on the bright side. Focus on the lesson you have learnt from the failure and the valuable experiences you gained that can help you become better. But avoid making the same mistakes twice. I always view my projects as ways to approach the truth of nature, and sometimes, failure allows us to be closer to finding the truth, which is a form of success in my opinion.

As for grant applications or manuscript submissions, I will simply focus on making them the best I can and not worry about the outcome. If you have a good manuscript or grant proposal, they always end up finding a good home (or sponsor). The most important thing after experiencing failure is to know what to do next. Discussing with your mentors will help you to sort out the next step toward your future success.  

Chicken or the egg?
Which came first—the chicken or the egg? @rayacaat

Sarada Bulchand, Lead Education Associate:
The chicken that came out of the egg 😊

Rukmini Dhara, Senior Research Fellow, Chronobiology and Sleep Laboratory:
I would say that the egg came first, since sufficient genetic changes would have had to take place for a chicken egg (zygote, actually) to form. That egg would then become the chicken; so logically, the egg would have come first!

What is the potential of stem cell therapy in treating brain injury and degenerative brain disease?
What is the potential of stem cell therapy in treating brain injury and degenerative brain disease? @sbs_trans3it

Response by Zhang Suchun, Professor and Programme Director, Neuroscience & Behavioural Disorders Programme, and Principal Investigator, Laboratory of Reconstructive Neurobiology


This question deals with three very broad topics, so let’s start by defining what we mean by them.

Brain injury is a very broad term. Depending on the type and degree of the injury, it may require different types of treatment or care. Following urgent care and treatment, patients with mild injury can usually recover almost completely, but those with more severe injury often require rehabilitation. This is because our brain has only a few stem cells and, therefore, a limited capacity to repair itself. 

Stem cells are the cells that can generate new types of cells while replicating themselves. For example, blood stem cells can generate many types of cells in our bloodstream while replenishing their own numbers. But neural stem cells go dormant after the brain has finished developing. So, scientists turn to iPSCs—or induced pluripotent stem cells—which are a type of stem cell that is converted from somatic cells (i.e., not sperm, egg or other stem cells) like skin cells, using just a few key genes. The converted or “reprogrammed” iPSCs can then generate any kind of cell in the body, like neural stem cells.  

Stem cell therapy refers to any treatment involving stem cells, including ways to promote regeneration using the stem cells that are already present in our body. When most people think of stem cell therapy, they think of the transplantation of stem cells from one person to another, which is just one form called allogeneic transplantation. Stem cell therapy has been explored for treating brain injury and neurodegenerative diseases in animal models.

In particular, neural stem cells or neural cells derived from iPSCs have shown positive effects in treating some neurological conditions in experimental settings. Some are now tried in clinics. For example, dopamine nerve cells—produced from iPSCs—are being tried in clinics to treat Parkinson’s disease. However, these treatments are still at the clinical trial stage and require further rigorous clinical testing and approval by regulatory authorities before they can be made widely available.

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