Professor injects vigor into scientific research
Animals such as the planarian piqued the curiosity of professor Lim Xinhong, principal investigator at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Institute of Medical Biology. Their amazing regenerative ability was what eventually prompted him to start studying skin in 2008.
Among his various research areas, the 34-year-old is looking at how skin can be grown in a petri dish with “mini-organs” such as hair follicles and sebaceous glands, responsible for producing sebum in human skin to keep it lubricated.
While current skin grafts help cover wounds, patients are unable to produce sweat or grow hair.
“This is a big problem for patients who receive such grafts. It significantly affects their quality of life. Aesthetically it looks strange. … It doesn’t have hair so it looks clearly like a graft,” Lim said.
“Because of the lack of hair and sebaceous glands, the skin also tends to be dry and fragile.”
So what Lim wants to do is make skin cultures that are much more similar to real skin.
Current skin graft procedures work like this: Skin is first taken from another part of the body before stem cells are extracted from it. The cells are then regrown into cell sheets before they are transplanted onto the wound site.
Over the past two years, Lim has been trying to grow these “mini organs” by harvesting stem cells and then providing the right molecular or chemical signals that instruct them to grow into hair follicles and sebaceous glands.
These have never been developed before and, if successful, would be a world first.
“I am always interested to find out how we can regrow things that we’ve lost. The skin is a great model for that because it is the largest and one of the most regenerative organs in the body,” he said.
Apart from growing skin, Lim, who received his doctorate in developmental and stem cell biology from Stanford University in the United States, wants to find solutions for acne and hair loss. Despite there being many products which promise to solve acne or hair loss woes, many questions about these conditions remain unanswered.
In the case of acne, not much is understood about what causes it. Factors such as stress, diet or excess sebum are said to be closely associated but no one really knows why or exactly how this works, said Lim.