scientists in lab

Star Scientist of the Month- Dr Bob Lee

Dr Bob Lee knows that discoveries made in the lab can take years, even decades to eventuate into treatments or devices that can save lives

12 December 2022

But this only makes him even more determined to make an impact in the field of heart disease and ensure his research is utilised in the real world. Dr Lee is currently working on arterial blood vessel disease which can have devastating consequences for sufferers. But there is now hope on the horizon thanks to the work Dr Lee and his supervisor Dr Renjing Liu are carrying out at the Institute.

Dr Bob Lee in the laboratory at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute

What’s it like to work with Dr Renjing Liu and the other team members?

The Liu lab is unlike any lab I have worked in. In our lab we don’t really have a hierarchy, whether you’re a postdoc, a research assistant, or a student, we work together as a team to solve problems together. While we all have separate projects that we drive individually, we all help each other out and produce results as a lab. This fostered our bond, and we regularly spend time outside the labs as friends. Renjing is also very different from my previous idea of what a supervisor should be. She is intimately involved in the daily lab work, performing her own experiments along with us. It is very refreshing to have your PI always available, so you can bounce ideas and learn from her at the lab benches instead of the traditional weekly or monthly meetings. During our PhD studies, we’re often trained to be experts in our own field but rarely do we learn about how to manage a team or structure multi-year career goals. So having Renjing’s constant guidance and support helped my transition from a student to an early career scientist.

Dr Renjing Liu leading her lab at the Institute

You are working on peripheral artery disease which primarily affects the legs. How does this differ from vessel diseases which affect the heart?

It is indeed quite similar to some of the diseases that cause a heart attack. The blood vessels become blocked by fatty plaques which are a consequence of getting older and lifestyle choices such as not exercising enough or having an unhealthy diet. This plaque buildup slowly reduces blood flow to the heart, but it can also affect other areas of the body like the brain, or in the case of what we are studying – your lower limbs. It's peripheral as it’s not central, not in the heart but is instead happening in the legs.

What’s the impact for those with this disease – are there warning signs?

It starts with a little bit of discomfort and then it becomes a bit harder to walk. In the early stages, it’s not life-threatening. But as it develops it can affect the blood flow to the leg so much that you can’t carry out everyday activities. It can then progress to necrosis – which is when the tissues in your lower leg start to die off. This is very serious because when these cells die, they send they kick off a cascade of events that can also affect the body’s main organs. At this point the surgeon can put a stent in the help keep the blood vessel open or in the very worst-case scenario, they may have to amputate the leg. And unfortunately, when this happens most people die within a year. We need to find ways to prevent and treat this disease.

What have you discovered about the causes of peripheral artery disease?

Dr Liu has identified a particular protein in a gene that helps control how the cells in blood vessels function. It turns out that this protein can diminish or mutate as we age, so the blood vessels don’t regenerate or grow as well as they should. What we are examining is if there is a way that we can make this protein turn on, or function correctly. So, if people do get a blockage there’s a way for the body to compensate and recover and grow vessels that will help supply blood to their legs. This research has implications to help people with blood vessel diseases that also affect the heart, the brain, and other parts of the body which is very exciting. To give us a holistic 3D view of blood vessels, we utilise the micro-computed tomography scanner at the Institute’s Innovation Centre. This machine is specialised to image extremely small blood vessels and allow us to analyse how our gene of interest, TET2, is affecting peripheral artery disease.

Smooth muscle cells injury render by Dr Bob Lee at the Institute's Innovation Centre

How far are we off from being able to modify this protein?

Our work is focusing on showing how important this protein is, and how it correlates with the ageing process. Right now, people at risk of this disease are primarily males over the age of 65 who may smoke, are overweight, and have a fatty diet. During check-ups, they generally undergo tests to check the blood flow to their legs. But there could be a test in the future that checks levels of this protein. We’re also looking into the possibility of being able to modify this protein which would be a new treatment for this disease. Gene-modifying therapies are a very hot topic in research thanks to the COVID vaccines. But until recently many people did not think it was possible but it’s becoming much more mainstream now. I think in the next five to 10 years we will see gene therapies for many diseases. Ideally, we would want to prevent artery disease in the first place by encouraging healthy lifestyles, but we must have treatments in place too.

It’s incredibly exciting to think that we could be at the cusp of a whole new era of medicine. How does it make you feel that your research could soon benefit patients?

I’m a pretty impatient scientist because whilst discovery science is vital it can take many years to deliver impact. I want to do more than just publish papers and contribute to the field of medicine. I studied biomaterial devices as part of my PhD so I am interested in developing a device or a new treatment. This is where my focus is and at the Institute, we have some incredible projects taking place right now, including the spider venom drug candidate for heart attacks and the artificial heart project too. I want my work to be utilised in the real world so it’s great to be part of a project that could be transformative for patients with peripheral arterial disease.

What do you enjoy most about working at the Institute?

As clichéd as it sounds, my favourite part of the Institute is its people. The Institute has such an incredible collaborative culture, making it so easy to find help and support. We’re surrounded by the best cardiovascular scientists in Australia, so whenever I need help there’s always an expert to talk to. We also have a fantastic support group as scientists and postdocs, with regular social events be they casual or institute sponsored. There is a sense of belonging in the Institute, which was not something I have experienced in the past.

Have you always been interested in heart disease research?

I was intrigued by biology and medicine from an early age. I grew up in New Zealand but unfortunately, there is not a huge amount of funding for medical research, so I moved to Australia two years after completing my degree both my Bachelor's and Master’s in Physiology at the University of Otago in 2013. I joined the Heart Research Institute (HRI) as a research assistant with Professor Martin Ng. It was here that I was first exposed to the world of cardiovascular research, ultimately leading me to do a PhD with Professor Ng and Professor Steven Wise at the University of Sydney. I then joined Renjing’s lab in 2020 as a post-doctoral scientist. I will stay in the field of heart research, but funding may affect my choice of whether that will be at an institute or a university. It’s something every postdoc must think about as getting funding and grants is incredibly difficult and competitive and the work can be pretty insecure.

Do you miss New Zealand and your family?

One of my main hobbies was snowboarding which I can’t do as much of now as it’s a long way to the snow from Sydney. I’m also lucky that my twin brother is in Sydney too. But my parents have moved back to Taiwan. I am going to see them at Christmas and try to hopefully persuade them to move here due to all the uncertainty in the region.

Dr Bob Lee snowboarding with a friend

What do you do outside of the lab?

I like fishing and I go out kayaking in the harbour when I can with one of my good friends. You get to see some beautiful spots out in the harbour in the Eastern Suburbs. I also love to cook – both Asian food and pasta which I love because you can whip up a lot of sauces very quickly and it’s versatile.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years