There is a good reason why surgeon Susan Lim invests some of her extremely valuable time in researching the use of adult stem cells, and it involves an experience that would leave us lesser mortals speechless.
Dr Lim performed Asia’s first-ever successful liver transplant in 1990 (while pregnant with one of her three children), and to do so she needed a good-quality liver from a recently deceased donor. So on the morning of her ground-breaking op, she had breakfast with the hangman of a prison in Singapore, and after he had executed a prisoner, she was able to remove the dead man’s liver.
“I thought then that this was just not right, there must be a way other than needing a donor – and not using stem cells from embryos, either,” Dr Lim told Emirates Business while in Dubai to speak at the Arab Health conference. “When we cut ourselves, our skin grows back healthily so I knew there must be a way of using adult stem cells.”
Now, she says, we are just two years away from truly revolutionary treatments being available with stem cells. She is just warming to this passion when our conversation is interrupted as Microsoft CEO Bill Gates passes us in the lobby of the Burj Al Arab hotel.
Dr Lim leaps up and says: “I admire him so much, I want to shake his hand!” It is how I felt before meeting her, but I’d managed to contain my admiration behind British reserve.
However, Mr Gates disappears and we settle down again as Dr Lim explains that what she really needs from Dubai is a business partner for her company Stem Cell Technologies (i), which she founded, and the Centre for Robotic Surgery in Singapore, of which she is chairman and CEO.
“Stem cell technology will become big business very soon,” she says. “When you are talking about a cutting-edge technology, it has to be in a country that dares to dream.
“We are still at the stage of perfecting some of the technology in the lab, but we will have a clinical trial in 18 months or so. It is important for me to be visible at such a time, and I think a country like the UAE would be interested in the applications of such research.”
This is particularly important in the Middle East, where diabetes is such a problem. Dr Lim says: “Diabetes is the destruction of the pancreas by a person’s own antibodies. If we can prevent this auto-immune destruction, then we can prolong life.”
The implications are enormous, and this doctor – voted Spirit of the Century in her home country of Singapore as its role model for the 21st Century – rightly describes herself as a “surgeon, scientist, and entrepreneur”. She owns the largest surgical practice in Singapore and as well as her expertise in stem cell research, she is also regarded as a world-pioneer in robotic surgery.
She says: “I really do believe in minimally invasive surgery. Robotic surgery will firstly have a major impact on mankind, and secondly it will be huge business.”
Robots performing surgery may scare the average patient, but 52-year-old Dr Lim explains: “Keyhole surgery was a step back in time. The surgeon has instruments that are like Chinese chopsticks, they are so rigid, and your vision is only 2D and only as good as the TV screen in the operating theatre.
“Your assistant holds the telescope used in the procedure, so if his hand trembles you can get motion sickness after a while.”
In robotic surgery, the surgeon can sit comfortably, away from the operating theatre, with his or her head immersed in a tunnel that gives an all-round picture of the area being operated on. The surgeon then controls the surgical instruments via a joystick.
“We use robotic hands which have seven degrees of movement and can move back on themselves,” Dr Lim says. “Much more flexible than the human hand, which has four degrees of movement. Also, this will prolong a surgeon’s life as we all get tremors with age.”
The drawback is the cost. “Robotic surgery is about twice as expensive as conventional surgery,” Dr Lim says. “However, each one of us is going to be a patient at some point, and we all want it to be as safe as possible.
“The other bonus is that other people can watch your procedure on screen and, if they spot an error, they can tell you. We can also set up ‘no fly zones’; we programme the computer controlling the robotic arms not to move outside a certain pathway, so a surgeon new to a procedure cannot make an error.”
Dr Lim admits medicine is a tough business. “Only the fittest survive,” she says. Her busy life means she and husband Deepak Sharma, CEO of Citigroup Global Wealth Management for Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, are ‘ships that pass in the night’.
This is the second marriage for both of them, and they have five children between them. She says: “I first came to Dubai with my husband. I liked it and bought a house in Jumeirah. In a business sense, I need someone who will leap into the future, and this is the place where I will find someone like that.”
She already has a process in the pipeline with Apple computers. “I can’t say too much, but it will enable patients to have their own medical records,” she says.
Apart from lecturing at Arab Health and seeking business partners, Dr Lim is getting an award named after her. The Dr Susan Lim Award for advancement in Laparoscopic and Minimally Invasive Surgery is chosen by the American Academy of Continuing Medical Education. She says: “I’ve won it the past two years so I think they’ve decided to name it after me. There were a million other people equally deserving of the award.” Somehow, that seems unlikely.
Healthcare professionals attended Arab Health
Exhibitors had stands in the International Convention Centre
Nations were represented at the summit
Conferences were held over three days
Delegates attended the lectures
-- Stem technology: Already a tooth and hair have been grown in laboratory from adult stem cells. Dr Lim says she will soon be able to take stem cells from a person’s own fat and inject them into their face. “It won’t make you look younger, but it will keep you looking as you are at the time of the procedure,” she says. The same procedure will also enable a patient to ‘grow’ his or her own, natural, implant after breast cancer surgery.
-- Robotic surgery: A patient will be able to dial up a surgeon anywhere in the world to perform their surgery because the surgeon operates using a remote control. Thus giving the patient the choice of the best expertise.
-- Testing: Dubai Biotechnology and Research Park, a member of Tecom Investments, is bringing the first animal testing laboratory to Dubai in its Dh289 million Nucleotide Complex, which will be operational in September this year. Dr Abdulqader Alkhayat, Executive Director, says: “This is the first time companies engaged in animal testing will have a facility dedicated to this type of research.”