Alan PORTER Ph.D, D.Sc
Principal Investigator at IMCB from 1986 to 2009
I would like to focus on the early years of the IMCB and how I came to be recruited. Early in 1986, the pharmaceutical company I worked for in the UK was closed down. At that time, an advertisement appeared in Nature for a brand new institute of molecular and cell biology with an image of a stunning building (I did not realise it was still under construction). It was located in S.E. Asia, where cutting edge biology was unheard of. The objectives included training manpower in biotechnology and in the biomedical sciences for the pharmaceutical industries of Singapore, which did not exist at that time. I knew Sydney Brenner was instrumental in the birth of the IMCB, so I called him for advice, and he said I should go for it. On meeting Chris Tan and Louis Lim in London, I was immediately impressed with their energy and vision for a world class institute in Singapore, a part of the world I knew little about. They persuaded me to join as an Associate Professor, with generous financial support and with access to funded graduate students as well as postdocs. I arrived with my family in August 1986, and we rented a large NUS bungalow within cycling distance of the IMCB (next to primary jungle where pythons and cobras lurked). I spent the majority of the next 7 months working with our first admin officer, Charity Wei ordering a massive amount of equipment and supplies from a staggering budget of $11 million on behalf of 9 yet to arrive IMCB groups. We had many battles with the local suppliers owing to their high prices and long delivery times. Much of my time was spent with a tape measure going around the laboratories to ensure the freezers, hoods, and many other large items would fit into the available space. Charity and I were the IMCB Admin Department!
It seemed daunting to start from scratch with four PhD students, Angabin Matin, Kalwant Singh, Cynthia Goh and Sabita Sankar. They not only showed early independence in their research, but also were of enormous help (along with Cheah Keat Chye, my first postdoc) in getting the new IMCB up and running before the majority of the other groups had arrived. 12 of us, representing several groups, moved into the new building on Kent Ridge in March 1987. My own group had spent several months located temporarily in the NUS Microbiology Department, for which we were most grateful. Looking back, there were relatively few 'teething troubles', though I do remember a mini flood when the air conditioning failed, and having to call in the pest control to deal with a plague of rats, bizarrely in the roof space.
Not only did I have the opportunity to establish three distinct research projects, but also I realised that we had to have safety protocols and needed a system for protecting intellectual property. I had a huge amount of help in these areas from my staff as well as from Chris and Louis, who suggested we base everything on the best practices of the USA, Canada and the UK. In 1988, IMCB's first paper was published in GENE, an immensely proud moment for us. We were encouraged to follow our own research ideas. If they were risky, so be it. Around this time, we generated IMCB's first product. Cynthia Goh and Seow Heng Fong expressed, purified and sold recombinant tumour necrosis factor-β to two biotech companies, which provided a modest income. There were no in-house protocols to produce biochemicals, conduct quality control and market products, so we made it up as we went along!
With excellent funding and support from the Singapore Government, together with the extensive international scientific connections of Chris, Louis, Chua Nam Hai, Sydney Brenner and other distinguished scientists, the IMCB was able to attract good people from all parts of the globe. In 1989, I met Reiner Jänicke at a conference in Europe, and he joined my group as he was keen to learn molecular biology. By the mid-1990's we had the confidence to move into the hot field of apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death. Subsequently Reiner and his colleagues published several key papers in this field on caspases. But the paper which caught the attention of the scientific community was published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry on April 17, 1998 (Jänicke et al: caspase-3 is required for DNA fragmentation and morphological changes associated with apoptosis). By 2014, this paper had garnered over 1,400 citations, one of only three non-clinical papers in Singapore to have reached the rare milestone of being cited 1,000 times by other authors.
In the late 1980's I could not have imagined that in such a short time, the IMCB would grow to become an internationally renowned institute performing cutting edge science, engaging in significant collaborations with laboratories all over the world. Nor could I have dreamed that many of my former staff would go on to have exciting careers in academia or industry in Singapore and overseas. My 22 years in the IMCB were among the best and most rewarding of my career; and I will never forget that our IMCB of today was nurtured by the vision and hard work of its founders and early pioneers.