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Resting behind Professor Leung’s quiet demeanour is his fierce fight to secure the best cure for his patients. “I think about them when I go to bed and again when I wake up. My patients, rather than my paycheck, is what drives me to come to work every day,” he says emphatically.
It is also why, for the last 30 years, Prof Leung has been conscientiously working on cellular therapy research, focusing on ways to improve bone marrow transplants and immunotherapy.
“In the early days of my career, it was most heart-breaking to have to turn patients away because there was no matched donor for a bone marrow transplant,” says the haematologist-oncologist.
But there’s now light at the end of the tunnel. For the last decade, Prof Leung has made great strides in allowing patients to receive bone marrow transplants without a matched donor – and without the usual complications of rejection or serious infection.
“With recent advances based on our research in graft engineering and natural killer cells, the results of BMTs with a mismatched donor are even better than those with a matched donor,” says Prof Leung, adding, “Seeing these patients cured by our novel BMT approaches is the most special.”
In over 2,000 transplants that Prof Leung has undertaken across his career, about a third of healthy-donor transplants was done using these new techniques, 30 of which took place in Singapore. In the region, the procedure has made its way to Hong Kong, Korea and India.
“It will constantly be a work in progress however,” says Prof Leung, who is now looking at ways to bring the treatment cost down.
Cellular therapy in Asia
While Prof Leung spent a good part of 20 years at Johns Hopkins and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the US where he achieved research breakthroughs, his drive to do more – and do faster – led him to move his career to Singapore in 2018.
“In Asia, the body of research on cellular therapy has grown very quickly despite a later start. More patients are treated in this region with chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) immunotherapy. Plus, Singapore has a culture of innovation and hiring high-quality scientists is easier here,” he says.
He’s now leading the set-up of a CAR-T and Natural Killer Cell programme for Singapore with the Health Sciences Authority while heading KKH’s Paediatric Bone Marrow Transplant and Cell Therapy Centre.
“We envision for Singapore to be a leader in the development of novel cell therapy and immunotherapy. All our research focuses on development of one-of-its-kind therapy for first-in-human clinical application,” he explains.
His team is working on genetically engineering natural killer cells to target cancer and developing newer generations of CAR-T cells for solid tumours, or what is widely considered to be the next frontier of cellular therapy.
“Cellular therapy will become the fourth pillar of medicine, complementing or even replacing surgery, radiation and medical therapy in the treatment of many malignant and non-malignant diseases. These new therapies will have far fewer side effects, be less costly and be better received by patients who can enjoy a better quality of life,” he predicts.
Expanding allied health studies
But it’s not just hard science that Prof Leung is interested in. “Cancer is a multi-disciplinary field. A lot of times, to improve care, we need the whole team of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals,” he says.
Somewhere down the line, he hopes to find collaborators to start on allied health research, which runs the gamut from epidemiology and pathology service to psychology and healthcare policy. “Today’s research is tomorrow’s medicine and we need to continually review and renew our practices at all levels,” says Prof Leung.
Nurturing talents for the future
While the Tan Cheng Lim – CCF Professorship provides continual funding and protected time for his own research, Prof Leung is also heartened by the grant is a gift that has the potential to snowball.
“This seed funding can help young clinician-scientists start their own research projects. The preliminary data obtained can then support their independent grant applications,” he says.
Beyond financial resources however, a creative and enterprising mind will ultimately lead an aspirant to success, Prof Leung insists. “For any clinical problem or issue, try not to only rely on a memorised fix. Instead, try to derive the best solution based on pathophysiology. And if there’s no solution available, invent one.”