The drive to succeed

City woman's childhood leads her to excel in the expanding field of stem cell research

Living at home wasn't easy for Burnaby resident Poh Tan, but one thing she knew for certain - she would never be like her parents.

Tan came from a broken home, with her mother and father constantly fighting and calling on the kids to watch. She started seeing a counsellor in Grade 10, after the family had moved from Malaysia to Burnaby years before.

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"I was told when bad things happen you keep it in the family," she says.

Close to Tan's graduation, her parents finally split up, and the young woman focused on her provincial exams and getting into university. Her determination to excel and be better than her parents kept her focused. She was accepted to SFU to study biology and then the University of B.C. to do her PhD on stem cell research. Stem cells can reproduce themselves and make virtually any other cell in the body. She worked in a biotech company till she started her own consulting business in 2011, advising companies around the world how best to apply their technology in the stem cell field.

This weekend, she's one of the featured speakers in the TedX Stanley Park event. TedX is an independently organized version of the well-known TED Talks, collections of short presentations, featuring non-biased, non-partisan, religious-free innovative ideas. For Tan's talk, she plans to debunk some of the misconceptions around stem cell research.

"It's a controversial field, so there are a lot of groups who are not knowledgeable about the field, who make up stories about it," Tan says.

For instance, when some people hear "stem cell" they imagine babies killed in laboratories, she says.

"That is absolutely not true at all," she says. There is a certain type of stem cell that can only be extracted from a human blastocyst - an egg

that has been fertilized by sperm - and the cell can only be extracted five days after fertilization. That cluster of cells, Tan says, is smaller than the dot of an i in a newspaper.

Another misconception is that stem cell research is all about cloning humans.

There are strict laws against human cloning and the technology doesn't exist to do that yet, she says.

"The fact is, cloning is not a scary thing. It's not even invented in the lab, it occurs in nature," she says. "For example, genetically identical twins are clones of each other, . and it happens naturally."

Tan wants people to know the benefits of stem cells.

"Stem cells can help us in regenerative medicine. They can help make tissue to replace damaged tissues and organs in the body," she says.

For example, if someone burns a cornea and can't see, stem cells from the other eye can be transplanted to the burnt eye. The stem cells will grow a new cornea, so the patient can see again.

If both eyes are burned and there are no stem cells left, cells from skin can be turned into "induced pluripotent" stem cells to grow corneal tissue in the lab.

"It's your own DNA still, so you can guarantee no rejection, and you can transplant that and you can see," Tan says.

Tan's talk, "Myths and Misconceptions on Stem Cells," is scheduled for Saturday, March 16, at UBC Robson Square.

There are 16 speakers, and Tan is one of two women on the roster.

Tickets are already sold out, but the event will be live-streamed at www.tedxstanleypark.com.

jmoreau@burnabynow.com

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