As Chief Medical Officer and Head of Research at regenerative cell medicine company SanBio, Damien Bates is in the vanguard of global efforts to find treatments for diseases that are either difficult or impossible to treat with conventional drugs.
“It’s about trying to heal the body in such a way that you don’t heal with scar tissue,” he explains.
“Can you create a tissue that mimics the tissue that was there in the beginning, when you were an embryo? Can we tap into those early developmental programs? Stem cells are one strategy for attempting to do that.”
SanBio’s approach to regenerative medicine works by implanting stem cells into patients’ bodies in order to create new functional tissue. Researchers at SanBio are particularly interested in the potential of stem cells to treat conditions including ischaemic stroke and traumatic brain injury.
The early signs are promising. The modified stem cells that the company manufactures appear to have helped a small number of patients who have suffered strokes recover some function in their paralysed limbs. A broader study on the treatment is due to report in early 2019.
Dr Bates ignited his passion for regeneration when he embarked on a PhD in Developmental Biology at the University of Melbourne, after studying medicine as an undergraduate in Sydney. He originally enrolled thinking this would help him get on a training program in plastic and reconstructive surgery, but after four years of fascinating research found that his perspective on science as a means to an end had completely changed.
“When it finished, I was so enamoured with this feeling of discovering new knowledge that I didn’t really want to go back to clinical practice.”
After graduating, he nevertheless completed his fellowship in plastic and reconstructive surgery, but the world of research beckoned. He headed overseas to take up a post-doctoral position in a University of Colorado laboratory that had done groundbreaking work in limb development. At the same time, he kept up his work as a reconstructive surgeon.
“That was a struggle. I spent a lot of time in the operating room, and then I’d have to drag myself out for dedicated research time. About a year-and-a-half down the track I came to a decision point: was I going to continue down this academic path, or do something different?”, he said.
The issue was, although he was doing interesting research, he “didn’t see that it would translate to something that would help humanity, in my lifetime at least.”
In the end, he took a leap into the unknown and entered industry, securing an entry-level job as a Medical Science Liaison at Baxter Healthcare.
“It was a very good learning experience, getting into industry and seeing how it all works,” Dr Bates says, although abruptly giving up one career for another was not without its challenges," Damien said.
“I sort of had to start from scratch, so to speak. I always thought ‘I’m going to wake up one morning in a cold sweat and go: what have I done?!’ ”
Thankfully, that moment never came, and from Baxter he went on to work in clinical development at tissue engineering company Organogenesis, before rising to Global Vice-
President, Medical Affairs at the multinational pharmaceutical company Allergan.
The transition to industry taught him a lot, including the value of interdisciplinary collaboration.
“Just because you have a medical degree or you’re a surgeon, doesn’t mean that you know everything about everything. There are brilliant people in their own areas of specialisation that you can learn a lot from.”
Now in a position to give back, Dr Bates mentors early career researchers and other students through the IMNIS (Industry Mentoring Network In STEM) program, which connects industry mentors with PhD student mentees across Australia. He’s also a keen participant in the University of Melbourne’s Ask Alumni program.
“It’s great that there are a lot of people out there who appreciate the opportunities that the University of Melbourne has given them, and want to give back and help students access the global network that we have. I think it’s fantastic.”
As for his advice to current science researchers, Damien said they should be unafraid to think outside the square when it comes to a career, and ask plenty of questions while doing so.
“There are no shortcuts. You have to finish your degree and do a good job. But there’s no harm in having a lot of discussions with many different people, trying to get as many data points as possible on key questions," he said.
“Even if you don't ultimately go into industry, mentees at least see that ecosystem and see how it all works.”
By Anders Furze