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Globally relevant cancer research with impact in Singapore

The work of a clinician scientist can be applied in the direct care of patients. Asst Professor Wan-Yee Teo, Clinician Scientist in the Division of Cellular & Molecular Research at National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), does research in brain tumours with this goal in mind - to produce findings that have a tangible impact on the practice of medicine.

Her most recent National Medical Research Council (NMRC) Award, the Clinician Scientist Award - Investigator (CSA-INV) is her third award from NMRC, and is testament that her research is internationally competitive.

Asst Prof Teo returned to Singapore after training as a paediatric neuro-oncologist at Texas Children’s Cancer Centre, Baylor College of Medicine, and is board-certified by the American Board of Pediatrics in the United States. She was one of the pioneer clinician scientists in Singapore sent overseas for training by NMRC. Upon her return in 2015, she established her laboratory unit at the Humphrey Oei Institute of Cancer Research, NCCS, and the Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Office (PBTRO) at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre. Asst Prof Teo’s research is competitively funded.

With a focus on global cancer and translating research to benefit both Asian and Western countries, her research laboratory has worked to understand different types of brain tumours affecting adults and children. The latest NMRC award was for her study on medulloblastoma, an aggressive form of brain tumour that affects children, globally.

“I am thankful and excited about this latest recognition by the NMRC, because it gives me and my team the motivation to continue developing our work to compete internationally,” said Asst Prof Teo, who is also a Clinician Scientist in the Division of Medicine, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. “This award gives us the necessary resources to expand our work.”

Asst Prof Teo is a Clinician Scientist in the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre, with appointments across institutions where she conducts her research and imparts her knowledge. At Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS), she is a faculty in the Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Programme, as well as in the Office of Education. She has co-developed a curriculum with Duke-NUS’ Office of Education, and teaches medical students during their research scholarship programme. This role allows her to prepare students for their residency and also encourages them to consider how they might be clinician scientists themselves, in the future.

“When I left Singapore to train in this field, few knew what the term clinician scientist meant. I am excited to see the establishment of SingHealth-Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre and its strategic developments. It is a necessary and important change,” Asst Prof Teo said.

The NMRC Awards recognise excellence in research by Singapore’s clinician scientists. Asst Prof Teo and all recipients of the NMRC Awards, are paving the way for future clinician scientists by advancing medical research and making it a priority in Singapore.

Asst Professor Wan-Yee Teo (third from left), Clinician Scientist in the Division of Cellular and Molecular Research, National Cancer Centre Singapore with members of her lab unit, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Office, SingHealth-Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre

Doing research on childhood cancers

Asst Prof Teo’s NMRC’s Clinician Scientist Award - Investigator (CSA-INV) is for her work to develop a drug to treat medulloblastoma. One of PBTRO’s focus areas is medulloblastoma, an aggressive form of brain tumour that affects children and is the most common malignant brain tumour in children, globally.

Medulloblastoma is a cancerous tumour that grows from the cerebellum (the bottom part of the brain), that can spread to other parts of the brain and spinal cord. It is the most common malignant brain tumour in children, making up 20% of all childhood brain tumours. Currently, options for treatment include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, however there is a need for drugs that can target and more accurately treat the tumours.

Working from a precision medicine angle, Asst Prof Teo and her team at the PBRTO are working on using the unique genetic fingerprints that characterise medulloblastoma in different patients. By investigating how the drug impacts medulloblastoma with different genetic make-up, their work will allow for more accurate targeting and treatment of tumours.

Asst Prof Teo and her team in the PBTRO are constantly active in the laboratory, and team members have reflected, “It’s never quiet and ever dynamic in our laboratory. Our work focuses on the fundamental biology of paediatric brain tumours, this is in line with our team goal to discover effective and novel treatments for the benefit of patients.”