Find out more our AMC and efforts in academic medicine.
Tanoto Foundation Professor in Cardiovascular Medicine
SingHealth Duke-NUS Cardiovascular Sciences Academic Clinical Programme
Senior Consultant, Department of Cardiology, National Heart Centre Singapore
Professor and Director, Cardiovascular & Metabolic Disorders Programme, Duke-NUS Medical School
Director, National Heart Research Institute Singapore
Deputy Director (Clinical), SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Precision Medicine
Time-consuming. Competitive. Uncertain. These challenges are par for the road for any clinician-scientist engaged in bench-based work. But the reward is infinitely sweet when basic science reaches the point of impactful translation.
Just ask Professor Stuart Cook who developed the TruSight Cardio Sequencing Kit, an assay that is now used in clinical practice around the world today to screen many thousands of patients for gene mutations linked to inherited heart conditions. This next-generation text kit won him the President’s Technology Award in 2018.
And in 2019, Prof Cook and his team made a breakthrough discovery that deactivating the interleukin 11(IL11) protein with antibodies could reverse non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that’s currently not treatable.
“The IL11 story is probably the best discovery I’ve ever made. It’s a nice example of breakthrough biology making its way quickly from the science laboratory towards trials in patients,” he says.
Enleofen Bio, a company co-founded by Prof Cook, was developing the antibodies for clinical trials. Enleofen was recently acquired by the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim that is now moving the therapies forward.
Prof Cook’s achievements were the result of his uprooting his life in the UK to move to Singapore in 2012. Even though Academic Medicine was still in its infancy here at the time, Prof Cook knew this was the place for him to expand and accelerate his cardiovascular research.
It wasn’t just because of the large volume of patients that the National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS) receives each year – it made recruitment for trials and studies that much speedier. “What took me three years to do here would have taken 10 years in the UK which had more but smaller patient flows through the hospitals,” says Prof Cook.
What made his move easier however, were the people. “There was ground-up initiative [to grow research capabilities]. There’s goodwill and a spirit of collaboration among the cardiologists and surgeons,” he shares.
Beyond the breakthroughs he’s achieved, what has been gratifying for Prof Cook was also building up the research capabilities at Cardiovascular Sciences Academic Clinical Programme (ACP) from what was a “good base” to a long-term sustainable Academic Medicine culture.
Holding appointments at both the Cardiovascular Sciences ACP and Duke-NUS Medical School, Prof Cook contributed directly to better cohesion between clinicians and researchers on both sides.
“And thankfully with grants from the National Medical Research Council, we could put in all the procedures, people, infrastructure and governance to make research possible and accessible,” he says.
On the pulse of discovery
The late leading British cardiologist Prof Philip Poole-Wilson once left Prof Cook with a memorable piece of advice, “It’s fantastic to do medicine but if you want to be a successful clinician scientist it’s important to get trained in deep science.”
Those were words that Prof Cook has kept close to his heart to this day. Even on the most hectic days, he powers through with a sense of purpose and pure passion for discovering new knowledge.
“Doing science is exciting. You see things that people have never seen ever before. In the lab, we’re working with young scientists who are really pushing the boundaries. It’s very fast moving.” he says.
Prof Cook also likens biology to the proverbial rabbit hole, whereby “the deeper you go, the more you realise you don’t know”. But eventually, when one follows the trail, “you eventually discover some truths”, he adds.
Mitigating the challenges
But passion alone only takes a budding talent so far. Common struggles that trainees (to become clinician-scientists) face can be balancing the gruelling work hours in clinical medicine with family life, the longer training period, the financial lure of starting a private practice or even, not meeting the right mentor.
“It’s important to have people who are truly interested in science, and who have a long-term vision. You can’t force it. It’s also important to marry a student with a well-qualified mentor who is an expert in a relevant field.” Prof Cook stresses.
In the long run, Prof Cook hopes to see more Singaporeans step up to become world-class clinician-scientists to take the research scene to new heights. And if aspiring talents would sit for a minute with Prof Cook and witness his conviction, they might well be inspired to take the plunge.