By Kevin Davies
August 29, 2011 | “I have one big job left before they put me up to pasture. Singapore needs a refresh, and perhaps I do as well.”
So says Edison Liu, the CEO-elect of The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), who reflected last week with Bio-IT World about his decade in Singapore and his priorities for his next plum assignment, which he takes up in January 2012.
Recruited to Singapore back in 2001, Liu founded the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and says he never intended to stay more than about 10-12 years. “As much as one loves the place, after a while the deep familiarity prevents an institution from being sufficiently flexible and adopting new thinking. That was my thought going in,” he says.
While Liu and others were thinking about transition plans, even contemplating another job in Singapore, he was approached out of the blue by the JAX. “When they first contacted me, I thought they had the wrong person! I’m not a mouse geneticist, but that’s not the issue. They want someone to take them into genomics, human genetics and translational medicine. They needed to fill a cancer center director’s position and they want globalization. I was one person that fit the entire bill… This was a sufficiently different challenge with a different community, whose expertise I can learn from.”
Several things in particular appealed to Liu. First, he says, “[JAX] has a degree of freedom in terms of organization and capabilities that I just don’t see in any other university department. I saw a very robust organization that had sufficient resources because of excellent management of mouse services. They understand that there are potential challenges ahead in terms of what the mouse model can do, and they need to be medically relevant.”
Second, Liu was intrigued by JAX’s deep roots within the genetics community. “When you get to my age , you can take on challenges, but you might as well take them on with friends! I felt surprising warmth and a sense of community, from the folks handling the mouse cages to the executives. It’s really unusual.”
The Maine Event
Trading in the Singapore heat for the bracing winters of Maine, Liu says he has no illusions of the challenges ahead. “I’m entering a flat NIH budget, which will affect the entire enterprise. The US situation is not rosy either!”
Liu lists three primary goals as he takes up his new post. First, “to move into human relevance – translational research, you can use other terms. That’s the key.”
Second, is to engage genomics in a cost-effective manner to increase the institute’s impact. And third, to “conceptualize how we can make the mouse even more relevant.”
A major priority will be what Liu calls computational analytics. “The linkage between human and mouse in a translational world will generally be through genetics, genomics and computational analytics. I hesitate to call it computational biology -- that often means something else -- but the concept of analytics engages IT, informatics, computational biology, simulations -- the whole gamut. That’s what you’ll need to make all aspects of genomics work -- not just sequencing the genome, but the transcriptome, epigenome, the dynamic portions over time and different conditions.”
Liu suggests that institutions that are not divided into departments, like JAX, have a better chance of doing a deep integration. “Historically, computational biology is split among 3-4 different departments. It’s not common they get aggregated into a powerful unit. Around the world, where computational biology has linked up, it is in institutions like the Broad, Sanger, even Washington University’s genome center, not within the department of computer science.”
The future of the mouse disease model is a critical issue for JAX. “By using informatics and the sequence as a linkage between mouse and human, we can put value added in the medical translational piece,” he says. As gene knockouts become ubiquitous, Liu wants to refocus on “innovation technologies.” He says: “That’s what we did for genomics in Singapore, to concentrate on elements of innovation. The mouse is still the best mammalian model for complex physiology and biology.”
One of the JAX trademarks is “humanizing the mouse.” Despite the plethora of model organisms available, Liu intends to “highlight the relevance of the mouse in systems or problems where there are not other organisms available.” And Liu wants to use synthetic biology to study the effects of mutations in different genetic backgrounds. “We can de-convolute complexity in an organismal manner,” he says. “I’d love to explore that.”
There has been much media attention to the state of scientific affairs in Singapore, but despite some hassles and what Liu calls “naivety among bureaucrats in dealing with scientists,” the situation in Singapore is still pretty good, he says. There has been “active debate within highest circles of government and scientific management in Singapore. Some of the debate has been heated but at no time, from my point of view, was that done in the context of abandoning Singapore as a reasonable destination for scientists.”
Because of Singapore’s history, Liu says some in government are “fearful of squandering any money for frivolous pursuits, including blue sky research, that pads an academic CV, you write a bunch of Cell papers but people don’t benefit and the economy doesn’t benefit. Singapore has no natural resources, and [outsiders] don’t understand the sense of anxiety and paranoia of companies one day picking up and leaving.”
During the recent economic downturn, the Singapore government was forced to dip into its financial reserves for the first time. “At that time, the projections for the future were pretty bleak,” says Liu. “Every stone was turned over, and the question of economic relevance came to the fore.” Government officials debated whether so much investment in pure life sciences could be justified.
“It’s the immediacy of the [economic] returns that prompted huge debate, and how we go about doing it,” says Liu. But this year, he says both sides have modulated their stance. “Asian bureaucracies tend to project demands rather than explain their insecurities,” he says. “Once we understood, the scientific leadership began to soften up in terms of their pushback. At the same time, the government became more understanding of what the objections were. We were all going for the same goal.”
“Have we resolved all differences? No. But have I seen major convergence? Yes, I have.”
Liu’s departure comes on the heels of the return to America of Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, a husband-and-wife team of mouse geneticists who are leaving to take up new posts in Houston, Texas. “It is very unfortunate that these two announcements came back to back. This was clearly not planned,” says Liu.
But Liu would much rather talk of the future. He cannot speak more highly of his newly named successor at GIS, Huck Hui Ng, whom Liu calls “a young, absolutely superb Singaporean scientist. He is someone whose career was developed at the GIS, became globally recognized, and he’s only 40 years old.”
This article also appeared in the 2011 September-October issue of Bio-IT World magazine.