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It wasn’t the most conventional ambition, but Professor Patrick Tan knew even as a teen that a career in research was in the cards. “Back in junior college, I was fascinated by biology. I thought a job with at least some sort of research involved would be right for me,” says the Director of SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Precision Medicine (PRISM) and Professor in the Cancer and Stem Cell Biology programme at Duke-NUS Medical School.
And for following his instincts, Prof Tan (along with the Academic Medicine community) has much to celebrate.
Armed with the realisation that Asian cancers are often triggered by external carcinogens from the environment – a phenomenon that isn’t as common in Western cancers, Prof Tan sought to uncover the underlying genetic causes of Asian cancers, thus carving out a niche in this area.
As a result of this massive research, Prof Tan, along with Professors Teh Bin Tean and Steve Rozen and colleagues from Duke-NUS Medical School, National Cancer Centre Singapore, Genome Institute of Singapore and collaborators from Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan, uncovered new genes and pathways for cancer progression (such as genetic abnormalities in stomach cancer).
The study landed Prof Tan and the team the prestigious American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Team Science Award in 2018 – it was the first time an Asian team had won the accolade – and the President Science Award in 2015.
More importantly, the research has helped doctors around the world understand Asian cancers better, and is a springboard for exploring new therapeutic targets and reducing instances of late-stage diagnoses.
“If we can find individuals who are at high risk of developing the disease, we can bring in current technology like surgery to excise [the cancer cells] so we intercept the disease before it progresses,” says Prof Tan. One of the first steps forward for stomach cancer, Prof Tan shares, is developing molecular markers for patients with metaplasia, a common intestinal condition that puts a patient at risk of cancer.
Beating out a path
While it may be gratifying, the road to a successful research career is far from easy. It in fact requires one to think very much like a start-up owner, says Prof Tan, who likens it to running his own little shop.
“What does your shop do? What will you be known for? These are things you need to think about,” he shares.
An added kink: genomics was a new field while he was about to embark on the cancer study so attracting the right partners was a challenge. “Thankfully, Bin and Steve came along at the right time,” he says.
And when research was well underway, the team found themselves faced with more pressing issues: how to bring the findings back to a clinic in Singapore, and how emerging technologies that allow data collection on a patient’s lifestyle outside the hospital can help develop a “fuel gauge” for patients before their diseases develop to advanced stage.
This became the genesis of PRISM, which seeks to improve patient outcomes through detailed understanding on individuals’ genetic, molecular and clinical profiles.
And along the way, Prof Tan enjoyed much appreciated advice from Professor Ralph Snyderman, his assigned mentor on the AM-ETHOS Academic Mentor Development Fellowship.
Prof Snyderman is the Chancellor Emeritus of Duke University, and also the Director of the Duke Center for Research on Personalized Health Care.
“Ralph is known as the father of personalised medicine, and was also instrumental in establishing Duke-NUS in the early days. He helped to validate some of our thoughts and presumptions [about PRISM],” says Prof Tan. The trip to Duke also allowed Prof Tan to connect with other respected researchers such as Professors Geoffrey Ginsburg and Robert Califf.
“My ultimate vision for PRISM is that what we do eventually touches every single patient. It could be the processes we put in, the people we train such as genetic counsellors or the data gathered here that’s used by different clinicians,” says Prof Tan.
And it seems his dream is coming into view with the set up of a new SingHealth Duke-NUS Disease Centre (SDDC) for genetic medicine. He says, “The new centre will help to standardise provision of genetic medicine and ensure that every patient who comes through any SingHealth clinic enjoys the same high-level care, and there’s the same availability of data throughout the institute. And PRISM is part of this effort.”