The educational mission
Prof. Huang said it is unusual for students to be involved in such research, but she has company in that assessment: Prof. Weissman called TMU’s MD/MS program “unusual and exciting” because it combines clinical and research components, allowing medical students to study cell therapies and product quality control.
The center also recruits degree students for the International PhD Program for Cell Therapy and Regeneration Medicine worldwide: these students often have professional experience with industry or research in their home countries.
Another proposal will help the lab provide general education programs for patients and others if it is funded by the Ministry of Education. TMU undergraduates already can take elective courses to learn more about this new field, and the degree program has more than doubled its enrollment in its first two years. These students are investing in a research degree, and three students who accompanied Prof. Huang to a recent interview were clearly aware that this new field is different from traditional pharmaceutical research.
Scott Yi-Heng Lin has been in the cell therapies master’s degree program since its initial year. He said pharmaceutical companies cannot commercialize these therapies as drugs – after all, they are “personalized medicine” tailored to each individual case, not administered as factory-manufactured standard doses. This means researchers must rely on other funding sources.
First-year student Ngo Thi Mai Huong agreed that it’s hard to get research money from pharmaceutical companies for these topics, like her studies of pathways and resistance in liver cancer. Ms. Huong has a deep background in research, with a decade of lab experience in Ho Chi Minh City and Haiphong in her native Vietnam, most recently studying in-vitro fertilization.
Another first-year student, Ageng Brahmadhi, went further to say that not only is each case unlikely to yield profit, but for now at least, these techniques are still “cost-consuming.” Thus he said that the issue isn’t pharma acceptance yet, but instead proving safety and efficacy so that companies will be willing to develop cell therapies on a larger scale. “First we must translate safety; safety is the biggest consideration,” he said. “Getting industry money is still far in the future, after many more stages. For now, the research relies on government funding.”
Mr. Brahamadhi was recruited from Universitas Muhammadiyah Purnokerto in central Java, with a background in medicine as well as histology and cell biology. He is working on DNA methylation, looking for biomarkers that will be useful in cell therapy.
Indonesia is another context for stem cell controversies, with cell therapies being pursued seriously by only two big hospitals in Jakarta and Surabaya. However, he said that private clinics promote scams that are marketed as stem cell therapies, based on myths that need to be countered by education for both patients and clinicians. Part of the problem is that few Indonesian-language publications cover this new field, and because most doctors do not study English in medical schools, they are cut off from international scholarly journals.
Dr. Lin has been working on finding mechanisms of acquired resistance in cancer biology, hoping to understand how this works and is overcome. He said that the dual-degree program could be pursued at various points during medical studies, with students generally starting their research in their fifth year and completing the degree in the sixth. But he advised students to start earlier, perhaps even in their first and second years, saying the earlier these students can get into research, the more time they can spend on this, because the medical school curriculum becomes more demanding as the years pass: “There are so many other things to do.”
He knows this first-hand, because he entered the program after receiving his MD degree. After seeing heartbreaking critical care cases where “there’s really nothing more we can do for the patient,” the promise of using cell therapies to address these medical challenges makes the program rewarding.
He says that addressing problems like a scientist rather than a clinician helps him to “think logically and critically” rather than applying received protocols and care standards, as physicians do. “The program is more structured and evidence-based [than medical school], and we learn skills and techniques” that doctors don’t encounter. For these reasons, Dr. Lin praised the TMU MD-MS option as “a really good combination.”