Return of Singapore's Non-native Prodigal Son (and Daughter)

One criticism of Singapore's multibillion-dollar effort to build a biomedical empire is its reliance on high-profile foreign researchers lured to the city-state on short-term contracts. But at least two top hired guns who worked for a while in Singapore and then left—David and Birgit Lane—are returning to the island nation for keeps.

Lane, 56, who was knighted in his native United Kingdom for the discovery of the tumor suppressor gene p53, originally took a 2-year sabbatical from the University of Dundee to become executive director of Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) in 2004. He also chaired the Biomedical Research Council, which advises Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) on life science research. His wife, Birgit, 58, a skin cancer researcher, also took leave from Dundee to head the Institute of Medical Biology (IMB). The couple stretched the 2-year leaves into 3 years and then returned to Dundee in 2007—only to discover that they like living in Singapore better. Starting 1 September, David will assume the post of "chief scientist and mentor" at A*STAR, while Birgit will resume her full-time role as IMB executive director. David Lane discussed the move and the Singaporean research scene with ScienceInsider from his lab in Singapore.

Q: When we met at your office in Singapore 2 years ago, you were just getting ready to go back to Dundee. Why come back to Singapore full-time?

D.L.: I really like it here. I had a lot of discussions with my wife as well and for the two of us, it's just very good. I wanted to have more of an opportunity to just be doing more bench science and less administrative work, and they've very happily arranged that for me here. It's a fantastic chance.

Q: Are you resigning or retiring from Dundee?

D.L.: I'm resigning from Dundee with effect from 1 September. I've got loads of colleagues there and still have quite a bit of research running there, so I'll be visiting quite a bit. After 17 years, it was quite a big decision.

Q: What is the next step in research on p53?

D.L.: I think we have to get some new treatments for cancer from it. I think we have to have a very intensive effort because things are starting to happen. We can keep finding out more and more about [p53], but in the end we've got to turn that into something practical. It's becoming very practical to determine the p53 status of a tumor very clearly. But how can we use that knowledge? Can we use existing drugs differently? Can we find molecules that exploit the loss of p53?

Q: I just ran a search on PubMed [a database of life science papers] and found that close to 50,000 papers have been published on p53. It sounds like a competitive field.  

D.L.: Since 1979, when we discovered p53, it has just become incredible. People predicted that things would drop off. But the last couple of years [there have been] a lot of discoveries of p53 functions outside of cancer. [It has] roles in metabolism, roles in aging, roles even in human fertility. It has become just a tremendous topic for investigation. And people keep finding new things.

Q: Will the presence of big pharma in Singapore help make that transition from the bench to the bedside?

D.L.: I think it will. It is an incredibly complicated equation to get all the pieces in place. And I think they're all here now in a rather focused and concentrated way. And that's very promising.

Q: Aside from research, what else can you bring to Singapore at this stage of your career?

D.L.: There are two other areas I think are important. One is the lot of young scientists here. I think the system can be a little hierarchical, and I think having somebody senior who's really much more at the bench will help a lot to make things work better, to get practical issues dealt with, and to provide a mentoring environment for those young people.

The other thing is that I've always felt Singapore is in a unique position because of the very high level of engineering and manufacturing here. So we've set up an office to promote interaction [between biology and the physical sciences], and I'm working now on all sorts of clever devices—things that would speed up drug screening and improve diagnostics. I think that's a very promising area.

Q: When I visited you there in 2007, you had a photo of a beautiful classic MG in your office. You said it was one of the reasons you were going back to Dundee. What are you doing with that car?

D.L.: It's an Austin-Healey, actually. I can't get it to start, still. [Laughs.] But this summer before I come back here I'm going to get it going whatever happens. If it starts to run well, I might [bring it to Singapore]. There are a few classic cars in Singapore, and certainly the weather is nice for a convertible.