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The next big thing

All scientists are looking for the next big thing, according to Professor Teh Bin Tean, Deputy Medical Director of Research at the National Cancer Singapore (NCCS). And this is presumably why in 2010, Prof Teh, who was then the head of a prestigious laboratory in the United States, decided to come back to Singapore to further his research into cancers that affect the Asian population.

Following his post-doctoral appointment in the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, Prof Teh joined the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) in Michigan, United States as Senior Scientific Investigator heading the Laboratory of Cancer Genetics in 2000. He concentrated on doing research in kidney cancer, established a worldwide network of collaborators and grew a tissue bank that would serve as rich resource for cancer research.

When Prof Teh was appointed the founding director of the joint NCCS-VARI laboratory in 2007, he and his team were able to draw on the tissue bank and charge headfirst to fulfilling its mission of serving as a bridge between the United States and Singapore, and between translational research and clinical medicine for cancer. Prof Teh and his transnational lab worked on getting a better understanding of the genomic studies of cancers common among Asian populations. His research at NCCS-VARI made him a recipient of the Singapore Translational Research Investigator Award (STaR) by the National Medical Research Council in 2010.

That was Prof Teh’s first STaR award and it supported translational cancer research in the areas of cancer drug resistance, ongoing translational research programmes and biliary cancer. Since then his award has been renewed twice.

Biliary cancer or bile duct cancer is a rare disease, but not in Laos and Cambodia. There the rampant consumption of a specific type of raw fish, liver fluke, and genetics meant that it affected many people. In 2012, Prof Teh and his team discovered the liver fluke as the carcinogen that caused the high incidence of bile duct cancer in those populations.

Following his instincts to uncover other cancer-causing carcinogens, Prof Teh and his teams at NCCS and Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) made a significant scientific finding that would change behaviour in Asia. They discovered that aristolochic acid, an herbal compound found in many Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM), was implicated in urinary tract cancers. Their findings were published in the high impact research journal, Science Translational Medicine, and the news was heavily covered in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Chinese media in 2017. These cancers have a high incidence in Taiwan, which caused the Taiwanese health authorities to issue a cautionary alert to the public.

These breakthroughs are part of Prof Teh’s personal mission to serve all populations.

“Health issues know no boundaries,” said Prof Teh, who is also the Deputy Director (Global Relations) of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Precision Medicine, that drives the use and standardisation of precision medicine and health for diseases relevant to Asian populations. “If we have the resources to do research in Singapore that can help our neighbours, it’s our responsibility to do it and share that knowledge.”

Prof Teh Bin Tean, Deputy Medical Director (Research) of the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) stands in the top right with a team of NCCS and team of NCCS and Duke-NUS Medical School scientists who mapped the genetics of the durian in the journal Nature Genetics in 2017.                         Photo credit: Duke-NUS Medical School

In 2017, Prof Teh and Professor Patrick Tan from Duke-NUS led a team of Singaporean scientists to complete the world’s first genomic map of Singapore’s favourite fruit, the durian. Findings were published in the journal Nature Genetics and has set the tone for the next phase of Prof Teh’s work.

“Sequencing the Mao Shan Wang durian, was really a result of all of us getting together for a fruit feast every durian season. As scientists, we were naturally curious, so we thought, why not sequence it?”

Prof Teh shared, “What began as a passion project has blossomed into something else. Since it was possible to sequence the durian and understand its genetics, why can’t we do the same for other plants and understand how compounds can cause or treat cancer?”

Prof Teh’s next phase of research to study the biodiversity of plants and what potential therapeutics it could lead to, is both uncharted and exciting. But if there’s anyone who can take on this next big thing, it’s Prof Teh.

The highest accolade for a clinician scientist in Singapore

In July 2019, Prof Teh was awarded a second renewal of the National Medical Research Council’s Singapore Translational Research Investigator (STaR) award, to continue cutting-edge work that explores how epigenetics are associated with chronic carcinogenic exposure.

This award is a continuation of his research into liver fluke and the herbal carcinogen aristolochic acid and how they are associated with hepatobiliary and urinary cancers in different groups of Asian populations.

Much has been done over the years to understand the biology of how cancers function and how the carcinogens and specific genes in populations interact with them. The renewal of Prof Teh’s STaR award is to build on the discoveries that have been made and hone in on the development of therapeutic agents to diagnose and treat patients, emphasising the translational part of Prof Teh’s research.

“I feel very grateful to be recognised with the STaR award,” said Prof Teh, who is also a professor at Duke-NUS. “This is the highest accolade that a clinician scientist can receive in Singapore and is an affirmation of the work that my team and I have been doing for these past 10 years, and encouragement to keep striving to make impactful discoveries that will make a real difference to the lives of people affected by cancer.”

In addition to his three-time NMRC STaR award, Prof Teh is a recipient of the Singapore President’s Science Award in 2015, for his work as a key member of a Singapore research team discovering new genes and molecular pathways in various Asian cancers. In 2018, Prof Teh was part of the first Asian team of cancer researchers to win the prestigious American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Team Science Award, that honours researchers for their global impact on cancer search. At the 2019 AACR Annual Meeting, Prof Teh presented his cancer research breakthroughs over the years as plenary lecturer.