What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
The current focus of my research is developing stem cell therapies for intractable neurological and neurodegenerative diseases, such as stroke, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases using GMP-grade neural cells differentiated from HLA-homozygous iPSC lines that my group has established recently. I am also interested in utilizing patient-specific iPSC lines for disease modeling and drug discovery in Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases. Finding new possibilities for clinical application from our research and discovering new drugs are the most rewarding aspects of my work.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I was trained as a developmental biologist and studied the role of FGFs during early Xenopus development under the supervision of Prof. Jonathan Slack at Oxford University, UK for my PhD. Afterwards, I became interested in the role of activin receptor signaling during mouse development in Prof. En Li’s lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, USA. During this period, I gained practical knowledge on mouse knockouts and embryonic stem cell culture, which provided the basis for my later work on pluripotent stem cells when I returned to Korea in 2000.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
I am excited about the possibility that the 10 HLA-homozygous induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines that we have recently established from frozen cord blood samples can cover more than 40% of the Korean population, and be used to treat diverse Asian populations. My primary goal is to use our HLA-homozygous iPSC lines to treat HLA-matched Huntington’s disease (HD) patients. Although we are still at an early stage, we aim to move on to clinical trials in the next few years. It will be highly rewarding and meaningful for us if our treatment can provide hope to HD patients and their families. We are also thrilled that peripheral blood cells from Alzheimer’s disease (AD) patients can mimic several important pathological features of the disease when they are converted to iPSCs, as they may potentially serve as useful platforms for candidate drug screening. So far, we have generated more than 50 iPSC lines from a diverse group of AD patients, and are in the process of performing high-content screening using FDA-approved drugs to identify potential candidate drugs.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Having a thorough understanding of the fundamental concepts in developmental biology is instrumental to understand more complicated issues in stem cell research. The more one understands specific developmental pathways and related diseases, the more one is equipped with better strategies to tackle problems. Being informed on the latest publications of major stem cell journals and stem cell news will provide one with useful insights into the current landscape and future directions in stem cell research and clinical trials.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
I am particularly inspired by the great enthusiasm of Dr Kwang Yul Cha, the founder of CHA University and CHA Medical Group. His infinite passion and support for stem cell research has driven CHA University to become a leader in stem cell research in Korea. I am also indebted to Prof. Olle Lindvall at Lund University, Sweden and Prof. Roger Barker at Cambridge University, UK, who have guided me on the path of stem cell clinical trials.
How do you spend your free time?
As PI of ~20 lab members, CEO of iPS Bio, a newly founded start-up company, and as the president of Korean Society for Stem Cell Research (KSSCR), I can hardly find free time recently. However, I like to spend my free time strolling with close colleagues, eating exotic foods, watching TV dramas, and reading books and newspapers. I also enjoy traveling abroad but unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this seems impossible in the near future.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
Apart from science, I am very interested in history and Chinese characters. For this reason, my Japanese and Chinese friends are often surprised to see my good command of Chinese characters and calligraphy. I also have a relatively good knowledge of foreign languages and foods.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
I have been a member of ISSCR since the society started in 2002. Undoubtedly, I have benefitted a lot by attending the annual meetings every year and international symposiums from time to time. In particular, as a local organizer of the 2019 ISSCR/KSSCR International Symposium held in Seoul, I had the great opportunity to work together with ISSCR very closely. This unique experience will be very useful for me as the president of KSSCR this year. Currently, I am participating on the ISSCR International Committee, Clinical Translation Committee, and the Task Force on Asian Engagement. As the president of KSSCR, I will make my best efforts to establish more fruitful relationships between ISSCR and KSSCR, and more broadly with Asian stem cell scientists.