"How did I become a clinician-scientist? How much time do you have?!” joked Assistant Professor Valerie Yang, Consultant in the Department of Lymphoma and Sarcoma, Division of Medical Oncology at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS).
As a teenager, Asst Prof Yang was sure she wanted to be a doctor, but an internship at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) ignited a passion for research. Opportunity came knocking because at that time, Singapore’s Biomedical Sciences initiative was gearing to develop young talent wanting to carve out a career treating patients for their medical conditions while undertaking research to find novel treatments. It was the best of both worlds for her, so at 18 years of age, Asst Prof Yang was one of the first batch of Singaporeans who received scholarship funding to train overseas to become clinician-scientists.
"I don't think I knew what I was getting into at that young age!” mused Asst Prof Yang.
Asst Prof Valerie Yang and her husband at her PhD graduation at Cambridge University in 2011.
Asst Prof Valerie Yang (standing) and her parents at a graduation dinner hosted by her PhD lab members at Christ’s College, Cambridge University in 2011.
Over the next ten years, she completed a Bachelor of Science from the University College London, and a Bachelor of Medicine (MB)/ Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at Cambridge University. When she returned to Singapore, Asst Prof Yang put her nose to the ground as a junior doctor and focused on delivering the best medical care. It was during this stage of her career that she discovered that she had a special connection with younger patients with rare cancers, who typically have a bleak outlook.
"We should do more for these young patients. Their cancers may be rare, but since they are young, their bodies can handle more aggressive treatment better than older patients," said Asst Prof Yang.
In addition to clinical care, her relationship with this group of patients fueled her research interest. Spending time, sometimes over weekends, to run lab experiments, Asst Prof Yang started developing patient-derived models in sarcoma to better understand the rare disease. Her work as a clinician-scientist gained interest and she started earning research grants and collaborations along the way.
Now, Asst Prof Yang is a full-time clinician-scientist who is a Consultant at NCCS and a Research Clinician and Group Leader of a lab at IMCB, where her journey first began!
Catching up at the end of 2021 after a year of intense research! From left to right, the National Cancer Centre Singapore’s Asst Prof Valerie Yang and Medical Director Prof William Hwang and the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology’s Executive Director Prof Wanjin Hong.
In October 2021, Asst Prof Yang was awarded the National Medical Research Council’s Transition Award for her work in Soft Tissue Sarcomas (STS), a type of cancer that affects patients of all ages. Prognosis is poor, with overall survival of just one year, while treatment options remain ineffective. This makes the goal of finding new therapies for this group of patients very crucial.
Asst Prof Yang’s project was conceptualised at a chance meeting with Dr Melissa Ng, from A*STAR’s Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN), at a lunch hosted for A*STAR Fellows. As they spoke about their respective research, they uncovered a common interest - to target the immune microenvironment of cancers, for more effective treatment.
This was a radical opinion because it was commonly believed at that time that STS tumours typically lack immune cells. However, emerging data and a seminal Nature paper published in 2020, showed that a significant number of STS tumours do contain immune cells.
Armed with this confirmation, Asst Prof Yang and her team embarked on a research project to better understand the immune microenvironment of STS. The team will draw from one of the largest repositories of STS samples in the world to do their research. Knowledge from this research will help patients in two ways - determine if targeting immune cells of STS tumours would be an effective treatment and allow the design of more effective immunotherapy clinical trials.
The Transition Award gives Asst Prof Yang, a young clinician-scientist, the resources to undertake this important study and build her capability to do impactful translational research that will hopefully hold the key to improving treatment outcomes in the future.
National Cancer Centre Singapore’s clinician-scientist Asst Prof Valerie Yang (top right) and her team at the Translational Precision Oncology Lab at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology
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