ARMI at 10: A Q&A with Institute Director Peter Currie – Part III: Building the Future of Regenerative Medicine

29 May,2019

ARMI at 10: A Q&A with Institute Director Peter Currie – Part III: Building the Future of Regenerative Medicine

This year, the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) celebrates its 10th anniversary. To mark this milestone, current Director of Research Professor Peter Currie reminisces on the struggles and achievements of ARMI over the past decade, his personal mission as Director to grow the research community in the institute and in Australia, and the future of regenerative medicine research. This is the final part of a three-part series. You can read Part I here and Part II here.

What do you think is the next big hurdle that ARMI has to get over?

I think we still need to grow and now we need to grow strategically and when I took on the directorship, there were three major pillars that I wanted to direct the institute. One was to keep growing and growing by improving our medical research credentials and keep investing in excellence. The second was to build meaningful and sustainable clinical linkages. And the third one was to put the institute on a more robust, more risk-averted and diverse funding platform. So have strategies to bring resources into the institute from non-traditional grant funding sources. Those are the three things that I hope to achieve.

Growth has happened. Clinical linkages still remains a difficult issue. I think that it’s one of the big challenges that might be overcome with the advent of the Victorian Heart Hospital which, horizon scanning, is a super exciting project and could revolutionise this campus in terms of its clinical linkages and opportunities. And in terms of raising resources with the institute, that still remains a really challenging tasks and there’s many reasons for that. But it’s challenging for everybody and it’s particularly challenging for an institute embedded within a university. So we could talk about why that is but this is no reflection on the fundraising acumen of the people who drive it in the university, which is really good. It’s how one voice among many gets to be heard. So I think the biggest challenge that will have the most impact on changing the way we operate in our visibility and growth moving forward will be meaningful clinical linkages now.

I’m not saying that the institute will become totally clinical research-focused. It won’t. What we have do is find a way of taking this incredible biomedical research engine and hooking it into a clinical landscape that’s meaningful and translatable and every institute needs that if they’re going to survive anyway. Every medical research institute needs to do that. And we have the Medical Research Future Fund which is where a growth in medical research funding will be and if you don’t have a way of drawing those resources into your institute in a meaningful way and more importantly – why aren’t you doing that? – then you won’t be as competitive as an institute for the next 30 years or so.

We have particular challenges with that and we will win with the quality of our science. But we do need a way of taking the quality of that science to the clinic.

“We have particular challenges with that and we will win with the quality of our science. But we do need a way of taking the quality of that science to the clinic.”

The first ten years was about establishing the institute and creating the foundation, what is the key focus of the next ten years?

As I said, I think we’ve built this internal culture of research excellence, which was the number one achievement and it’s about the individuals that are in there and holding each other to account in regards to the quality of the science and building a culture of ownership within ARMI. I think we’ve done that and I think now it’s time to leverage that activity to build something bigger and more impacting. As I’ve said, we’re an international research institute, but we need to focus on building growth strategically so we can achieve our translatable aims while keeping the core of quality science inside the four walls.

So we’ve had a lot of younger leaders come in and establishing themselves and now they’re maturing and they’re on top of their game now and they can start looking beyond their own laboratories and start thinking about ambitions that are greater than single individual research aims. So what I hope to see through that is a flowering of diversity of approaches and interactions from ARMI, drawing in resources and different capabilities. Because people have the bandwidth now to engage more fully and do different things. And I really encourage that. You know the intersection of different research activities and different approaches is where we’ll get the biggest gain.

So I very much encourage people to start branching into other areas and bringing those other areas to the institute. We don’t really need to hire more of them. We need more expansion of capabilities, expansion of our reach and expansion of our knowledge base so that everybody within the institution is exposed to different sciences that can impact what they’re doing. So we need a bit more diversity.

How is ARMI breaking the mold of developing PhD students, the next generation of regenerative medicine research leaders?

That’s been a very exciting journey for both the Honours and PhD programs and now the Masters program. So, the first thing we have to say is that ARMI is a cutting edge research environment and we’re immersing students in that. So it’s critical that when they come out of the ARMI environment, they know they’ve been through a high quality research environment and they’re competitive in their skill sets globally. That is absolutely critical. But it’s also important that they understand there’s a bigger world than just the bench that they’ve inhabited for three years. So we have a lot of programs where we send them overseas to specific conferences, to institutes we collaborate with. We use our international network of collaborations so that they get exposed to other research environments. And also for them to know that there is a thing called industry out there and that not every PhD student is going to be an academic researcher. So they get exposed to that environment as well, and they get mentoring from industry representatives and they get placements if they want.

So what we try to do with them is have high quality exposure to a cutting edge research environment, have them know that they’re international PhD students, and also that there’s more to life than just pipetting at the bench. We try to get them engaged in the public understanding of science. We like our students to be the face of the institute, they’re the future of regenerative medicine. So we love to see them out politising, educating, interacting with the next generation that’s coming through. And I think ARMI has a good record in engaging students in a wider environment, but I really hope when a student comes out of ARMI, they know what regenerative medicine is around the globe- they’ve got a global mindset.

“And I think ARMI has a good record in engaging students in a wider environment, but I really hope when a student comes out of ARMI, they know what regenerative medicine is around the globe- they’ve got a global mindset.”

You mentioned the “the public understanding of regenerative medicine.” There is still much we don’t know, but the expansion of the field and the industry demonstrate that there have been great leaps in recent years. How do regenerative medicine researchers reconcile the gap between basic science and translation?

Regenerative medicine and the technologies associated with it are all about the promise and not necessarily about medicine. So the next decade of research will definitely be about taking those incredible foundational discoveries, and indeed there have been some incredible discoveries in regenerative medicine over the last decade that have catapulted the whole field, and our task is to take these discoveries to improve the health of Australians and of people worldwide. Clearly, the task of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute is to put the “medicine” in Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute. It’s a $26 billion dollar industry right now, there are hundreds of clinical trials of regenerative medicine products and we really are on the cusp of a revolution in using this technology. It’s the ultimate disruptive medical technology. On paper, it can do all things for all people. But we have to control it, tame it, know it and make it safe- that’s really important and something we need to achieve.

The more the disruptive the technology, the more we need to commit obtaining that social licence to operate. How do you think we need to communicate?

I feel like that’s always the problem with science, science is a very personal-led endeavour. And we get fascinated by our own personal desire to know and that can be both a positive and a negative force. When do we know enough about a discovery for it to be translated? What do we need to know beyond that? But I think our task as scientists is to reach the boundaries of what society wants us to know. Always ask- do you wish to know this? Do you wish to use this? And particularly in this area of regenerative medicine and stem cell biology, we need to walk in lock-step with public opinion. And we have raced ahead of it at some points and we haven’t been clever enough or focused enough in informing the public because we’ve been fascinated with our own creations a little bit too much sometimes. But I sense we’ve actually, at least in Australia, through the efforts of some dedicated people, managed to bring the message to the public in a way that they can understand it now. And I think it is often difficult for scientists when they realise they have to walk hand-in-hand with the people they are serving because they get so excited and enthused with their own discoveries, but it’s an important part of the process. So I think we do a reasonably good job at it now. People do understand the differences between different regenerative medicine technologies a bit better, but still there’s plenty more to do.

One final question- what keeps you up at night? What do you worry about with ARMI?

Yes, well it’s really about the longevity of individual group leaders. So the people that I’ve recruited- it’s an up and down, topsy turvy world and I worry about the survival of their groups and them personally. Because my motto is that we don’t recruit ten hoping five or six will succeed. I recruit five hoping five will succeed.Everybody goes through ups and downs in funding and personnel and things like that. When you hire so many younger group leaders at once, it’s inevitable a few of them are not going to probably crack it and I do worry about those few a lot and having to give frank and fearless advice at the appropriate point in time.

“People think scientists are robots and you know, they’re not. Emotionally, they’re creative people and they face failure every day.”

The plight and difficulties of individual group leaders and individual people within my group face on their journey…that keeps me awake. Because science is a very human endeavour.People think scientists are robots and you know, they’re not. Emotionally, they’re creative people and they face failure every day. And it takes a thick skin to be a scientist and a lot of us don’t have the armour that we need for this business. And it’s very self-affronting because we face self-critique and peer critique on a weekly basis. So our papers are rejected, grants turned down, our metrics aren’t met. It’s all there in black and white, success or failure. So you have to be incredibly robust to face that level of failure and to be honest with you, experimentation is 99% failure. Science is a compelling compulsive activity that’s ultimately selfish because we’re trying to learn things we want to know. And so your science vision is uniquely tied up in you.

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