Can you explain the general context of your research in Singapore within a CNRS International Research Laboratory in a few words?
BMC² (Biomechanics of cellular contacts) is an International Research Laboratory which focuses on understanding the role of mechanical stimulations, mechanics, forces, on the way tissues and cells respond to the environmental constraints. That is to say how cells will proliferate, how a tissue will develop, how a tissue will become a disease tissue rather than staying a normal tissue. To do this research, we have two partners. One in France and one in Singapore. The one in France is CNRS, specifically the Institute of Biology, as well as the Institute of Physics at CNRS. In Singapore, we have the MechanoBiology Institute that actually hosts the research laboratory, as well as the department of biology, which is the general umbrella under which we do Science at NUS.
What types of applications do your research activities lead to?
In the BMC² Lab, the research activity is mostly fundamental. We don’t aim at a specific understanding of one specific disease for example. We aim at understanding the general principle that guides the organization of the cells. However, there are some applications. At the moment, the biggest application we found was more from a technological point of view. How to develop the tools that allow you to control environment around cells and force them to grow in a given environment in vitro. It led us to create several techniques and technologies that were patented and some are trying to be commercialized. It involves microfabrication of environment, controlling precisely the interaction of the cells with an inert polymer. Another technique allows to very precisely image the interaction of the cells together, while confining them in a given environment. We built a new type of microscopy that allows us to measure many cells interactions at a time, in a way that is not usual. We are now trying to get a start-up out of that technology. Again, the main application is more on the technology side, than on the direct consequence of the fundamental mechanisms that we’ve learned so far.
What do you think of the research in Singapore?
I think the research landscape in Singapore is first of all very dynamic. There are financial means, there are people around which are qualified, so that makes a very nice and lively community. Then it offers quite a number of opportunities. If you want to test things, it is possible. In a small amount of space here, you are able to meet many different kinds of people and many fields of research. So it’s very easy to run interdisciplinary research which is very much favored in this context. Clearly the facilities that you can find here are world class. So it’s a very interesting thing if you know how to access these facilities and use them properly. Lastly, it also has a long tradition to ease international collaboration. Which I think is very necessary to bring the best of what Singapore can offer as well as what other countries can offer. It’s an ideal place, an ideal hub to build an international research laboratory.
Are you currently collaborating with French or Singaporean institutes?
Yes. The research we have in the lab is intrinsically very multidisciplinary. We can’t do it on our own, so we collaborate with different institutes. Both in France and in Singapore. We are going in different directions. For example, we develop new instrumentation and specifically new microscopy technics. For that we collaborate with the Institute of Neurosciences in Bordeaux. As well as with Cell-C here at NTU. We have of course many daily collaborations with the neighboring labs at the MechanoBiology Institute for sharing materials, sharing ideas. We also have some very interesting collaborations with the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS, an A*STAR institution) to understand the role of mechanics on the genomic data and the genomic impact of mechanics on cells. We have other collaborations. For example, with the immunology department at MBI because in immunology there is a strong component of mechanical forces so we have a project with the immunology department at NUS. We also had – which is stopped – a collaboration with SUTD, the Singapore University for Technology and Design because on top of controlling the micro environment we wanted to develop tools which were commercializable. SUTD helped us to develop machines to produce the micro environment tools in large quantities.
Very recently we started a collaboration with the department of design here at NUS. So that they will actually help us build an easy to manipulate microscope. Because our microscopy technic is a little bit difficult to handle. The idea is to collaborate with real designers so that they can help us build the instrument and build the software that drives it.
We also recently developed some approaches where we wanted to use organoids. Organoids are mini organs that you can grow in small test tubes. And for that we have again a collaboration with the GIS, to grow liver organoids. And we have a collaboration with the Center Turing for Living Matter, in Marseille, where they also develop new kinds of organoids.
So, in biology, technology and in microscopy we have collaborations, both in France and in Singapore.
How does the Covid-19 pandemic affect your work?
Surprisingly, I thought the lockdown period that we had would be very difficult and it happened to be very productive. We had the occasion for two months to actually not collect the data, but analyze them in much more depth than we would have had the opportunity otherwise. We also developed new software, wrote new articles and so on. So that two-month period for everyone in the group wasn’t that bad. I’d say that it’s the start again after the phase 2 of Covid-19 was a bit more problematic, because everything that was working in the lab before was not working anymore because of that lag of time. The other issue we’re facing for the moment is more for dynamic and morale. In a sense, whatever projects were already ongoing and ongoing fast and at steady pace, just happened to be resurrected easily. Those which were more starting or those who were more in a perspective, are much more difficult to actually initiate in time, due to restrictions in getting people in and in actually work in the lab. Although this is now finished because we have the right to work anytime we want. Lastly, I think it’s more of the very strong dynamics that was here before that has to be restarted because the energy is slowly ramping up, but certainly not yet at the high peak it was before.