Helping pregnant mothers at risk


Rebecca Lim discusses her cutting edge stem cell work on pre-eclampsia with Elizabeth Finkel.


Rebecca Lim is a stem cell biologist and Australian champion for Japanese martial arts. – Theo Schwarz

The word that comes to mind to describe Rebecca Lim is powerful. She is a vivacious, brilliant young woman with a steely interior, drawn to science by an “unending nest of questions”.

Pinned to the yellow wall of her office are pictures of her covered in mud at Tough Mudder, a 21 km marathon that involves scaling muddy walls, negotiating electrified fences, crawling through tunnels, and swimming through icy pools. It’s a good metaphor for her. Her goal is to introduce new therapies for premature babies and pregnant mothers at risk of the dangerous high blood pressure syndrome known as pre-eclampsia. It’s her toughest challenge yet.

Born in Singapore 32 years ago, she made it through the tough educational streaming process for college. In 1999 she set her sights on an education in Australia – an unaffordable dream until a family friend gave her A$80,000 to pursue it at Murdoch University.

By 2002, with a science degree, Lim entered a research world ablaze with stem cell fever. After a PhD in Perth, she joined Euan Wallace’s lab at Melbourne’s Monash Institute of Medical Research. Wallace had found a remarkable and easily available source of stem cells. Scraped from the amniotic sac that surrounds a foetus, the cells had the potential to heal the damaged lungs of newborn mice. Lim showed that these cells also fixed the lungs of premature lambs. Remarkably the human cells do not rouse the immune system even across different species. She is awaiting permission to start a human trial. “We’re standing on the precipice,” she says.

Rebecca Lim looks guaranteed to score runs – or should that be blows? She is also Australian champion for the Japanese martial arts of Iaido (sword) and Jodo (staff).

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Elizabeth Finkel is editor-in-chief of Cosmos.