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Tanoto Foundation Professor in Medical OncologySingHealth Duke-NUS Oncology Academic Clinical ProgrammeDeputy Medical Director (Clinical) and Senior Consultant, Division of Medical
Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore Senior Consultant, SingHealth Duke-NUS Blood Cancer Centre
Merely a decade ago, information about T- and NK/T-cell lymphomas was scant despite their prevalence in Asia. Instead, B-cell lymphoma, the more common variation of the disease in the West got all the attention.
Professor Lim Soon Thye knew this had to change. To provide better outcomes to patients in this part of the world, he had to start rolling up his sleeves outside of the clinic and in the lab.
“There’re so many differences between our local patients and Westerners, including the race, culture, living environment or diet. It is important to build strong databases on our patients and learn deeply from our world,” he says.
The exponential growth in understanding of genomics and immunology in the last 20 years also added impetus to Prof Lim’s plunge into lymphoma research.
“These are areas we did not learn in medical school back then. In a way, genomics and immunology are new languages we had to learn so we can reinvent ourselves and provide better treatment to patients,” he says.
When science and medicine meet
The road to establishing a solid research platform for lymphoma was a considered one. Prof Lim and the team at National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) created opportunities for scientists and clinicians to network and mingle, where learning about each other’s work took priority.
Bridges soon formed and doctors were able to take observations quickly to the bench where scientists lent their support.
“For example, when a patient responds well to immunotherapy, scientists then decipher the mechanism as to why it happens. This brings a lot of satisfaction on both sides,” says Prof Lim. He adds, “For doctors to have access to this kind of support makes clinical work more exciting and brings it to different level.”
Prof Lim’s research career on the genetic basis of cancer soared in time. Other than winning accolades like the 3rd Kobayashi Foundation Award in 2014, he is the co-founder of the Asian Lymphoma Study Group, linking researchers across the region for lymphoma studies. He also founded the Singapore Lymphoma Study Group that has accumulated a clinical and biological database of over 3,000 patients in Singapore.
The result from Prof Lim’s extensive work: an increased understanding of T-cell lymphoma, which has led to identifying potential targets for treatment and new ways of diagnosis and classification.
“This is a niche we have built and in the region, people do realise this is our strength,” he says. Prof Lim currently leads the National Lymphoma Translational Research Programme and is one of the principal investigators leading the blood cancer genomics project at the International Cancer Genomics Consortium.
Despite the recognition he has received as an individual, teamwork counts for more in Prof Lim’s books.
“The most defining moments are when we win large collaborative grants. [Great research] is not about individual excellence; it’s a group of people coming together to work together, build relationships and break walls across institutions,” he says, adding that the communities built from these grants had jump-started some careers and resulted in further research and discoveries.
Fuelled by the eco-system
While clinical work takes up a chunk of his time, Prof Lim is invigorated by a career that is varied. And it is hardly surprising that overseas patients have continuously made a beeline for the little red dot.
“Because of our depth of knowledge, we can actually go quite deep in patient management. That’s why we get referrals around the region for complex cases. This is only possible only when you have developed a system where people think you are capable of handling such complex cases. And this is also a source of motivation for me,” says Prof Lim.
And because of the research resources that are easily accessible and patient volume, the team have been able to attract trials for innovative drugs that may otherwise not be available, Prof Lim points out.
The next buzz that Prof Lim and many oncologists in the world are gearing up for is the new generation of immunotherapy treatments that can potentially save lives and change the field of transplants.
“These are strategies that harness your own immune system to attack lymphoma cells – we have already seen dramatic responses with it – and can be combined with conventional chemotherapy and targeted treatment for very resistant cancer,” he says.
Reaching new highs
With the Tanato professorship for support, Prof Lim has his sights set on cementing Singapore’s leading position in Asia in lymphoma research, and has hopes for the field to grow. “The idea is that we create this platform and culture that can attract industry and other researchers to build upon, particularly to make further inroads to potential cures with immunotherapy,” he says.
And in his capacity as Deputy Medical Director (Clinical) at NCCS, Prof Lim has big plans to create integrated cancer service lines across our Academic Medical Centre. This involves standardising processes and care pathways throughout each specialty, and creating the same access to high-quality support and resources.
But this initiative not only includes clinicians; each service line will boast a full suite of capabilities to meet the demand for multi-disciplinary care in cancer from patient education and diagnostics to palliative care and personalised medicine. And researchers can easily access programmes, grants, research forums and databases to facilitate their work.
This integrated platform will be very crucial for the next phase [of growth] especially because of our ageing population, says Prof Lim, adding, “As a cluster we need to think about how to change the cancer narrative for Singapore, rethink how we deliver cancer care. If we can pull this off, it’ll be a game changer.”