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Big Think extends a warm thank you to Cogito and the Center for Talented Youth at John Hopkins University for facilitating this interview.

The researcher discusses the problems America has had with stem cells.

Question: What was your reaction to Obama’s executive order on stem cells?

Loh:    That morning, we had a big party in the lab and a lot of reporters came to get comments from people at Harvard.  I think that I’m really excited and… because at Harvard, Harvard has a lot of private funding and so it’s… so some labs that have projects that is less dependent on federal funding but I think that lots of people in the US, there’s thousands of universities, many of which have many bright people trying to advance stem cell research and that blockading federal money to those laboratories really hurts us a lot because we can’t hope to bring cures into markets, I think, by just having private funding to universities and corporate funding for pharmaceuticals.  And I’m really excited now that our current president is looking forward to trying to jump start stem cell research and by medical research as a whole and I think that as this money gets spread around the country that we’ll see a lot of people from different universities and institutions publishing a lot of good work that’s really going to move us forward, I’m really excited that this is going on and I think that this is going to help us a lot.   

Question: What is your hope for stem cells in your lifetime?

Loh: I think while the first FDA trials, clinical trials for stem cells are going on now with spinal cord injury, that many of my colleagues and friends and I agree that it’ll be decades before this becomes a more prevalent trend and I think that looking at the current drugs for pharmaceutical companies, it can take, maybe on the scale of 10 years and a billion dollars to get a drug all the way to market.  And so I think that means that for the stem cell studies are being done now on mice, that it will take at least, at the very minimum, a decade or much more to be able to get those to humans.  I think the fact that we’re so comfortable in taking pills or taking shots but when gene therapy came around, no one was too excited about putting viruses into their body and right now, people aren’t too thrilled about putting stem cells or stem cells derived cells into someone’s body and I think that it’s really important that we try to take this slow and be careful and make sure that nothing that we do can ultimately harm a person, that these stem cells won’t hurt anyone.  And I think it… it definitely will take decades and I guess, maybe as my generation gets older we’ll see some cells get around ‘cause there’s a big interest in them and a lot of people are interested.  But I think that if something in the near and foreseeable future but definitely not now and that the future is definitely going to bring a lot and I’m really excited to see how it turns out.

Question: How did you end up at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute?

Loh:    I was an undergrad at Rutgers and I was just browsing around the Harvard website for fun and it said something like, there’s a summer internship program for the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and I was… and I said, like, “There are hundreds of really smart kids applying for this.  I’m just going to apply for fun ‘cause I have nothing better to do.”  And so I applied and miraculously I got in, I was so shocked when I read the acceptance e-mail, I thought it was a prank or they have forgotten to insert the word, “You weren’t accepted” but I’ll have to say that that acceptance was based on certain really, really influential mentors and so I have to thank Dr. Doug Melton who is the director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute who has guided me a lot and Dr. [Willy Lynch] at Harvard Medical School who really made this happen.