Understanding how human gastric stem cells drive cancer growth reveals new opportunities for developing safer and more effective treatments for patients.
Growing up in a family of scientists, Prof Nick Barker found his calling in biology when he was still in school. He says that delving into the world of cells, diseases and viruses “made sense” compared with abstract concepts in other subjects.
Today, Prof Barker is a research director at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), leading a highly motivated team of four post-doctoral fellows and five technicians to find new ways to treat cancer.
A crucial part of his work involves studying Aquaporin-5 (AQP5), a membrane protein found in the gastric epithelium. Prof Barker and his team identified AQP5 as a marker for gastric stem cells, essential for maintaining the stomach’s epithelium and regenerating new cells.
However, AQP5-expressing cells are also found in certain stomach tumours and are instrumental in driving cancer growth and spread. By developing a suite of advanced experimental models, including cultured organoids derived from human tumour cells that accurately mimic patient cancers, the team is expanding its knowledge to improve treatment options for stomach cancer.
Prof Barker explains, “Ten years ago, precision medicine was probably unthinkable due to the costs involved. Now, with recent technological advances, it’s become a reality. It is now possible to take a biopsy from a cancer patient and perform DNA sequencing and gene expression profiling to understand what has gone wrong in their tumour at a manageable cost. These tumour biopsies can also be grown in the lab and used to test different drug combinations that are likely to be most effective for treating the patient.”
“Whilst such advances are undoubtedly benefitting cancer patients, there is still an urgent need to develop more effective treatments with fewer side effects for the patient – finding ways to selectively target tumour-specific stem cell populations will ultimately deliver better treatment outcomes in the clinic,” he adds.
Before settling in Singapore in 2010, Prof Barker had a stint as a senior scientist focusing on developing novel colon cancer therapeutics in a biotech startup in the Netherlands. His work in the private sector was very different from what he was used to in academia.
He shares that this experience cemented his decision to return to academia to focus on quality scientific work, a journey he truly enjoys.
Besides his work at IMCB, Prof Barker is part of the GastroEsophageal Malignancies Investigator Network Initiative (Gemini), a global consortium of scientists and oncologists. He also holds a visiting professorship at Kanazawa University, Japan and is an adjunct Professor at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NUS.
Prof Barker observed that research students often struggle to carve out an independent career path in the highly competitive academic sphere, tempting them to opt for seemingly more stable positions in the industry. He urges those considering a research career to stay motivated, collaborative and build a strong network for success in the industry.
To be a great scientist, you must be highly motivated, tenacious and be prepared for multiple failures along the way. Equally important is knowing when to quit projects that have no realistic expectations of delivering useful outcomes.