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Saturday January 27, 2007

A growing passion


Tan Guak-Kim wants to find a way to regrow entire limbs. She also hopes to establish an institute to share her knowledge. 

STEM cells and their possible applications to repair human organs and save lives can sound like science fiction to the man on the street. 

But to 28-year-old researcher Tan Guak-Kim, this esoteric field of science is something she is relishing to take on and in fact, build on, so that the public will benefit. 

Tan: Is fueled by the prospect of discovering something unknown.
“I hope to eventually find a way to regrow entire limbs,” Tan said, adding that she had wanted to be a doctor, but settling for biotechnology proved to be a blessing in disguise. 

“Medicine was my first choice, but I was rejected and had to pursue a Biomedical Science degree instead,” the Universiti Malaya (UM) graduate said. 

Tan said this allowed her to experience research work, which eventually turned into her passion.  

Tan later received a Masters of Medical Science from UM. 

Her dogged determination resulted in the Australian government awarding her a full PhD scholarship under the Endeavour Awards programme last November.  

Tan will be taking part in researching what could be a cure for those suffering from joint pains due to diminished or damaged menisci (cartilage between the joints). 

By applying stem cell and bioengineering technology to “regrow ” the damaged cartilage completely, such research would potentially be helping millions of arthritic sufferers around the world,” she said. 

“The injury, damage or wearing out of the menisci is one of the reasons that people suffer from arthritis. Such technology would also be able to help athletes.” 

Tan will be enrolling at the University of Queensland in March and will be based at the Australian Institute of Biotechnology and Nanotechnology under the guidance of Prof Justin Cooper-White. 

ROLE MODEL: UM Faculty of Medicine Physiology Department lecturer Prof Dr Kim Kah Hwi discussing a point with Tan. Prof Kim believes Tan’s achievement will spur more Malaysians to get involved in researching cutting-edge technologies.
“Prof Cooper-White’s speciality is bio-material engineering and I will be working with him to create a 3D-scaffold so that the menisci can be reconstructed,” Tan said. 

“Think of the 3D-scaffold as support for the menisci cells to grow on. Once the cells have taken hold, the scaffold will degrade by itself.”  

However, it will be a long journey as Tan’s first step would be to first try to induce stem cells to take the form of menisci cells. 

Stem cells are cells that can transform into different cell types when subjected to the right biochemical signals. 

“I’m excited that I will be able to work on such cutting-edge technology, as I have always wanted to do something to help others,” she said. 

Tan, who is from Kota Tinggi in Johor, feels that her contribution to science would be very meaningful, and hopes to establish an institute here when she returns from overseas. 

“I believe in sharing knowledge. I will come back to Malaysia so that this technology can be shared,” she pledged. 

When asked what motivated her to spend countless hours in the lab, Tan said the prospect of discovering something unknown was what kept her going. 

“It is not a boring job as some think. I also do not like predictability, as in a nine to five job,” she said, adding that her lecturers and advisors had provided her with immense support.  

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