Thursday, June 29, 2017

STEM CELL RESEARCH: WHY INDONESIA IS LAGGING BEHIND

Pengantar:
Artikel anak saya, Lily Hikam, terkait bidang riset dalam bidang "sel punca" (Stem Cell) yang sangat pesat di negara-negara maju seperti AS. Di Indonesia, riset bidang ini masih belum diperhatikan, apalagi dikembangkan, padahal merupakan salah satu bidang yang sangat penting bagi kemajuan bangsa. Seharusnya perhatian dan  komitmen Pemerintah, Wakil-wakil Rakyat, dan masyarakat sipil terhadap pemajuan riset Iptek di negeri kita jauh lebih penting dibanding dengan politik identitas, primordialisme, dan sektarianisme yang memecah-belah itu.


By Lily Hikam*)

Last week, I was fortunate to be able to attend the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR). This annual meeting is the gathering of (almost) everyone in the world who are conducting research utilizing stem cells in some capacity. There was approximately 4.000 attendees at this 4 day event. It was amazing to be able to meet and interact with so many scientists in one place. This active exchange of ideas and advances are one of the driving forces in scientific advancement, one personification of the adage “scientist helping scientists”.


There, I was exposed to new hypotheses, techniques and advances in biological sciences which have broad implications to society. Many of the findings showed how stem cells have been useful in identifying new targets or ways to cure incurable diseases; how stem cells can be utilized to create organoids to study diseases as well as to understand how the human genome is regulated and controlled to create a functional human being. Being there exposed me to new knowledge, and made me realize how little I know.

The field of stem cell biology is an exciting one, with endless potential. Acknowledging this, it is no wonder that developed countries have institutions dedicated to studying stem cells. In California, the state where I reside, there is a state stem cell agency called the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) that funds stem cell research in the state of CA. The presence of CIRM makes California the best place to reside in if you want to study stem cells (the good weather and awesome food don’t hurt either).

To the best of my knowledge, California is the only state in the US that has a state-sponsored funding agency for stem cell research. Researchers in other states have to rely on federal funding allocated through the National Institute of Health, or funding from private agencies. So, I have it pretty good here in California with two potential funding sources, but how about in Indonesia?


Three years ago when I left Indonesia, the only kind of stem cell research Indonesian scientists are doing was on Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs). MSCs are also known as adult stem cells that reside in every part of our bodies. They are unlike Embryonic Stem Cells (ESCs), in that they have limited capability to generate new cells. They can only generate cells that are in their lineage. So blood stem cells can only generate red blood cells and white blood cells; bone stem cells can only generate bones; fat stem cells can only generate more fat. As such, MSCs have limited research use. For example, MSCs cannot be used to study embryonic development; and if you want to make neurons from MSCs, you’d have better luck getting someone to stop littering in Jakarta.

I understand that there is ethical concern regarding the use of ESCs due to how they are generated. However, the field has progressed past that with the generation of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Three years ago, when I left no group was performing iPSC work, in the private sector nor public sector. If this trend continues, Indonesia would be left behind in terms of scientific knowledge and advancement. As a scientist and patriot, I strongly believe that our country (read: Central Government) needs to increase its support for their scientists and researchers. And yes, one of the ways to do that is to increase funding for research and development.

However, it doesn’t stop there. Society also plays a pivotal role in the success of these researches. One of the reason HIV, cancer and ALS research are able to secure funding is due to the people’s enthusiasm and support in fundraising for these causes. Research should NOT be viewed as something that is just a waste of time and money. Yes it is a long term investment, and if you only look at it from a business point of view, it’s not a very profitable one. But the benefits of research greatly outweighs their costs.

Indonesia is a country that holds the record as the country with the most active Twitter and Facebook users. Its people are tech-savvy and forward thinking. However, why are their Government and Legislature still bogged down by petty issues, such as identity politics and primordialism, as evidenced by the absurd Blasphemy Law? Isn’t it better to focus their strength and not inconsiderable influence in crafting a bill to increase funding for the betterment of research and development in Indonesia? Also to reform our basic education system so our pupils have critical thinking skills, instead of lifelessly memorizing facts they’re going to forget after the exam. These are better ways to serve and improve our society.

As closing remark, I will leave you with this: the first verses of Holy Quran is:

"Read. Read in the name of thy Lord who created; [He] created the human being from blood clot. Read in the name of thy Lord who taught by the pen: [He] taught the human being what he did not know.” (96:1-5).

From this passage, it is imperative that we, as Muslims, must pursue knowledge and learning. So, isn’t neglecting research, an integral part of learning, blasphemous?

*) Graduate Student, Zaragoza Lab

UCI Cardiogenomics Clinical and Research Program

Department of Biological Chemistry

The University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine
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