Vietnamese doctor dedicates life to stem cell research
A university professor and researcher in Ho Chi Minh City has spent nearly ten years exploring new medical applications for stem cells.
Pham Van Phuc, the 34-year-old deputy head of the Stem Cell Laboratory at the University of Science under the Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City, got his doctorate degree in human and animal physiology at the age of 30.
Phuc’s research journey, however, began much earlier when he was a sophomore at the University of Science over ten years ago.
During a class with Professor Phan Kim Ngoc, now head of the Stem Cell Laboratory, to the surprise of his classmates, Phuc interrupted Ngoc to voice his opinion, a move considered uncommon among Vietnamese students.
Ngoc did not take Phuc’s action as rude and disrespectful, but rather saw great potential in the student, and began asking Phuc to accompany him to the laboratory so that he might become acquainted with lab work.
“Without help from Professor Ngoc and other colleagues, I would not be who I am today,” Phuc recalled of his first days in the laboratory.
The more Phuc became involved in the study and application of stem cells, the more he found happiness in being able to contribute to the treatment of diseases once considered incurable by the country’s medical capabilities.
Phuc’s first mentor, Professor Ngoc, was also the first volunteer patient to undergo treatment using the stem cell technology that Phuc had studied.
Speaking with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, Ngoc said his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease had been considered “incurable,” so he was determined to take part in the experiment using the results of Phuc’s study.
In 2012, the University Medical Center of Ho Chi Minh City agreed to use the study results by Phuc and his colleagues to perform stem cell transplants on 37 patients to treat osteoarthritis, a type of joint disease that results from a breakdown of joint cartilage and the underlying bone, according to the Atlas of Osteoarthritis.
The experiment’s outcome was positive, the patients appeared to suffer no complication and the treatment proved effective against the disease.
According to Phuc, the cost of similar stem cell treatment in developed countries is three times higher than that of domestically performed methods, thanks to mastery over the technology of stem cell extraction from fat tissues.
Phuc and his colleagues developed a handy kit to exploit the technology in 2013, which put Vietnam on the map as a contributor to the field of stem cell research.
Phuc’s application of stem cells in the treatment of osteoarthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is currently being employed by several hospitals in Ho Chi Minh City such as the University Medical Center of Ho Chi Minh City, Van Hanh General Hospital, Nguyen Tri Phuong Hospital, and 115 Hospital.
“Why can the world do it, while we…,” the unfinished question has been keeping Phuc awake at night and sparking his motivation to devote more to his research, even if it means rejecting job offers worth thousands of dollars from foreign companies.
“I personally feel that I am still greatly indebted to my professor for his mentorship, and I want to develop the laboratory into a world-class research center. Not moving forward means falling behind,” Phuc confessed.
Ten years ago, Phuc watched his classmates go abroad, one after another, to pursue their studies while he decided to remain in his tiny laboratory, despite having been offered scholarships himself.
“Rumors began to spread on why I chose to study in Vietnam, some even going as far as to suggest that my reputation was far overrated,” Phuc recalled. “My professor must have also received criticism for keeping such a ‘loser’ like me in the lab, as he more than twice ‘demanded’ that I go too.”
“I ignored all the rumors and pursued my research because I knew I was on the right path. I tried to pull myself forward and the challenges felt like nothing but catalysts for the initial success of my colleagues and me,” Phuc added.
Phuc’s decision to study biotechnology at the University of Science was a surprise to many friends since he could have been admitted to the Ho Chi Minh City University of Medicine and Pharmacy, one of the most prestigious universities in the city, without having to sit the entrance exam thanks to a national award in biology.
At the beginning of his career, biotechnology was still a newfound discipline in Vietnam, having only been established a few years before. Nevertheless, Phuc saw the boundless potential of biology and biomedicine in training and in life itself.
“A doctor may cure a certain number of patients, but a medical technology may save millions or even billions of lives. I will continue to pursue my studies in this field,” Phuc insisted.
Phuc rarely mentions the difficulties he faced as a student, such as his three-hour bike ride back and forth every day from his dormitory in Thu Duc District to tutor a student in the neighboring province of Binh Duong.
To Phuc the hardship was not an obstacle, but rather a challenge fueling his passion for stem cell research.
Phuc was among the ten recipients of the Golden Sphere Award 2015 for young researchers awarded by the Central Committee of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union and a recipient of the KOVA Awards honoring outstanding scientists, students and community contributors across Vietnam.
Over 50 of Phuc’s scientific articles have been published by international scientific journals, while Phuc himself is the editor-in-chief and member of various editorial boards for several scientific journals.
Apart from his research career, Phuc also uses his spare time to give lessons at his university, for he views education as a mission and a source of inspiration for future generations of scientists and researchers.
Described by his students as a humorous and passionate teacher, Phuc compares his teaching job to flirting girls, as both require love and persistence.
Speaking of his student and colleague, Professor Ngoc said Phuc is an honest and brave person, willing to stand up for justice and with a burning desire to contribute to the development of science in Vietnam.