Vivian Li contributes her piece to the puzzle of science

18 December 2014

“Scientists are always working in the background. Everyone is trying to piece together a small corner of the big picture.”

Dr Vivian S.W. Li’s contribution to the big picture of medical science is through her research in intestinal stem cell and cancer development. Li was awarded a Croucher Foundation Fellowship in 2008 to pursue postdoctoral research in these areas under the guidance of Hans Clevers at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology in the Netherlands.

Li currently serves as a group leader in the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research. The institute is soon to be moved to the new Francis Crick Institute, which will run as one of the largest biomedical research facilities in Europe.

Keen to help the smooth functioning of this new institute, Li has joined the Crick Interim Faculty Committee. “The move will encourage more collaboration between different disciplines as boundaries and divisions will be removed,” she says.

A firm believer in the benefits of collaboration, Li is part of the medical team that is making great scientific advances in gut tissue engineering with doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. The procedure significantly reduces the rate of organ rejection in transplant surgeries by the process of stripping the donated organ of its original cells and repopulating the resulting scaffold with muscle cells, nerve cells as well as intestinal epithelial gut organoids that are cultured in a laboratory.

Preliminary clinical results of gut tissue engineering in pediatric cases for patients suffering from rare diseases like short bowel syndrome have been encouraging. The team aims to replicate the success achieved by transplantation of other tissues (kidney, trachea) although the intestine is considered to be the more challenging organ due to the complexity of components like the intestinal villi.

Her own research pursuits also involve the intestine, with a focus on intestinal stem cell development and the relation between Wnt pathway regulation and colon cancer.

“After my PhD, I noticed that the structure of the intestine is ideal to study stem cell development. It has a defined structure and we know exactly where the stem cells are and how exactly they move. It is just the mechanism of the cells that needs to be further understood.”

Through her research, she aims to identify more markers of colon cancer and develop therapeutic treatment. This can help enable an earlier detection of the disease, which is a major existing problem contributing to the cancer’s high mortality rate across the globe.

Reflecting positively on her decision to work abroad in the UK, Li recommends students to pursue their PhDs or postdocs overseas. She said that it allows for scientists to form more network collaborations and engage in more cross-disciplinary projects, which help advance scientific research. Staying in one place for too long may lead people to limit themselves slightly.

Applying for a fellowship is one way to facilitate that opportunity. She believes her Croucher Foundation Fellowship helped open doors for her at the Hubrecht Lab, “If you want to go to the big shots, the famous laboratories, it helps if you have a fellowship coming with you as the recruitment for new talent takes place only rarely.”

Regarding her own accomplishments abroad, she says-

When I achieve work that can be applied to the clinic directly, that would be considered as an achievement for me.
Vivan Li

To view Dr Vivan Li's person Croucher profile, please click here