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Young Scientists

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Biophysics - Science of Life

How well do you know the human body? Do you know how cancer cells are developed over a period of time? Why is it important to know about Protein Structure? These were just some of the questions that were put forward to students who attended the IHPC Seminar Series on 28th February on the theme of Biophysics – the ‘Science of Life’.  Biophysics, being a subject that is under the auspices of Life Sciences, is gaining much precedence in this day and age as more and more efforts are undertaken into its main focus on the preservation of life. At IHPC, the Biophysics team, led by Dr Chaim Keng Hwee under the Large-scale Complex Systems programme, is currently focusing their efforts in the area of computational cancer mechanics.  The workshop was also significant as it marked a first in cross-council collaboration between A*Star’s Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) and Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) for the seminar series. Dr Derek Smith, from the A*Star BioInfomatics Institute presented to the 170-strong crowd on the importance of studying protein structure, as it is essential in biological systems and is also a key medical and industrial interest. Using an interesting analogy of Fish and Chips (Fish being a natural source of Protein and Chips referring to the silicon Chips in a computer, not the usual French Fries), Dr Smith demonstrated how computers, or high performance computing can be utilised, and is indeed essential in the study of protein structures. As protein evolves over time and is adapted for different functions, the process of modelling the structural dynamics of protein becomes simplified with the aid of visualisation techniques that help in aiding and directing further lab experiments.

Following Dr Smith’s presentation, Dr Leong Fong Yew, from the IHPC Biophysics team, touched on the area of Computational Cancer Mechanics – with its research focus on developing theories and simulations of the mechanics of cells and tumors during cancer progression, understanding cell migration, cell deformation, cell adhesion and studying differences in the mechanical properties of cells in the normal and diseased states. Dr Leong stated that the difference between a normal and a cancer cell is that a cancer cell stretches twice as much as a normal one and researchers can determine the state of a cell using a special laser technology. This perked the interest of the students, as they had never heard of a cell ‘stretching’ before. Dr Leong also mentioned that studying Cell Adhesion is the key to understanding the progression of cancer. Cell adhesion refers to cells sticking onto a substrate surface or onto another cell. Cells that adhere to a surface are not easily pushed around by moving fluid i.e. flow of blood and this would lead to progression of cancer.

Next, Dr Andy Yew, a Research Scientist from the Singapore General Hospital, took to the stage with his topic on Biomedical Imaging and Visualisation. Using medical imaging, surgeons are able to view the insides of the human body without a surgical procedure. Medical imaging also allows scientists to see microscopic elements that are not visible to the naked eye. Some examples introduced by Dr Yew on Biomedical imaging used in Orthopaedics were Roentogenogram (X-ray), Computed Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). New techniques in medical imaging – Digital Imaging Processing and Medical Visualisation - were also highlighted during the talk. Digital Imaging Processing helps to improve the pictorial information garnered from those of X-Ray and MRI for human interpretation. Simultaneously, it can also process image data for storage, transmission, and representation for machine perception. For Medical Visualisation, three–dimensional computer models can be reconstructed using images from 3D imaging modalities (e.g. CT, MR) and this would, in turn, aid doctors in visualising the anatomical structures of the human body. Dr. Ong Siew Hwa, a research scientist from the Lilly Singapore Center for Drug Discovery, gave a talk on state of the art targeted therapies for cancer.  She described the process of developing drugs that block the growth and spread of cancer, and how their interference with specific molecules involved in carcinogenesis and tumor growth are exploited.  By blocking the signals that tell cancer cells to grow and divide uncontrollably, targeted therapies can help to halt the growth and division of cancer cells.  She also highlighted the role that computational tools and biophysical techniques play during this process of targeted therapy development.  Developing targeted cancer therapies is a long and arduous journey that will require the participation of researchers from many disciplines.

The students left with a deeper understanding of the challenges and learning opportunities that researchers faced in the area of computational cancer mechanics. The talks also inspired many to interact with the speakers after the seminar to gain further insight into this exciting field of research that will have a major impact in the years to come.


This page is last updated at: 01-OCT-2008