How important are mentors in shaping a mentee’s career?
For Dr Danny Tng, a Medical Officer in the Department of Infectious Diseases at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), his mentors from the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) guided him as he transitioned from a clueless medical student to a young clinician-scientist who now has an invention that may help the world better deal with COVID-19.
Singapore General Hospital medical officer Dr Danny Tng with PASPORT, a new saliva COVID-19 quick test technology, that he co-developed.
Game-changing saliva COVID-19 test
Last December, a team of SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre clinicians and scientists announced a newly developed Antigen Rapid Test (ART) technology capable of diagnosing the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The technology, called PASPORT (Parallel Amplified Saliva rapid POint-of-caRe Test), is easy to use as it is simple, painless, and only requires saliva to generate results in minutes. Unlike currently available ART tests, it is almost as sensitive as detecting the virus as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests because it uses nanoparticle technology to bind to the virus and amplify its signal.
Behind this breakthrough is a team of clinicians and scientists from the Department of Infectious Diseases at SGH, the Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme at Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and the Department of Biomedical Engineering of NUS, and two oncologists from NCCS.
Professor Soo Kee Chee, former Medical Director of NCCS and Benjamin Sheares Professor in Academic Medicine at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Oncology Academic Clinical Programme, and Associate Professor Melvin Chua, Senior Consultant in the Division of Radiation Oncology at NCCS, are core members of the team that developed PASPORT and are both Danny’s mentors.
From mentoring to collaborating
In the second year of his MD Programme at Duke-NUS, Danny was looking for a research project that could put his nanotechnology expertise to good use. With a PhD from Nanyang Technological University's School of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Danny’s thesis had looked at how nanotechnology could be exploited to produce customised treatments for different tumour types.
When Prof Soo, then Medical Director of NCCS, realised Danny's research interests made him a good fit for cancer research at NCCS he invited him to join the Tan Chin Tuan Laboratory of Optical Imaging, Photodynamic and Proton Therapy, which is co-led by Prof Soo and Assoc Prof Chua. Prof Soo then mentored as Danny as he worked on a project to detect thyroid cancer using nanotechnology.
“In Danny, I saw a very driven young man who had completed a PhD, was doing medicine, had a clear idea of what he wanted in life and was prepared to work hard for it,” shared Prof Soo.
“As senior leaders, it’s important to support talented and driven individuals, so that they can grow to be better doctors, scientists and leaders.”
Pivoting to meet a public health need
Danny had graduated from medical school and was working as a medical officer when the pandemic struck Singapore in 2020. Prof Soo, Assoc Prof Chua and Danny quickly realised that the technology they had originally developed to detect cancers could be applied to detect viral-associated proteins from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
They joined forces with Professor Ooi Eng Eong from Duke-NUS, Professor Jenny Low from SGH and Professor Zhang Yong from NUS, to put their combined expertise together to create a saliva-based, point-of-care amplified test for COVID-19.
While PCR tests are accurate in detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, they require expertise to perform and are expensive. In contrast, commonly-available saliva ART tests are simple to perform, reliable and accurate if done after fasting, so that the concentration of virus in the saliva does not diminish from eating or drinking.
PASPORT, the technology developed by the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre team, goes one step further by using nanoparticles to bind to the virus and uses a second type of nanoparticle to amplify its signal. This makes it very sensitive at detecting the virus and ensures it is not easily compromised by the consumption of food and drink. Coupled with its ease of use, PASPORT promises to be a technology that the general public could easily self-administer to test for COVID-19. This is especially important as the world moves towards more endemic management of COVID-19.
PASPORT has been licensed to Digital Life Line Pte. Ltd. and has four components; a test kit (top), a saliva collection funnel (bottom left), a saliva collection tube with a collection buffer (bottom middle) and an amplification buffer (bottom right).
PASPORT technology works by amplifying the signal of the COVID-19 virus in a person’s saliva. The saliva is input in the first channel of the test kit and binds to nanoparticles to indicate the presence of virus, while a second type of nanoparticle is input in the second channel to amplify the virus’ signal.
“Danny’s knowledge of micro and nanotechnology drove the invention of PASPORT,” said Prof Soo. “His expertise in technology and engineering married with his medical knowledge makes him a very good clinician scientist.”
How a good mentor adds value
The genesis of this invention led us to think about the value of mentorship. When asked about his role in PASPORT, Assoc Prof Chua joked, “I came up with the name! I’m good at finding a catchy and attention-getting names for our inventions!”
In reality, Assoc Prof Chua had a hand in guiding Danny to navigate the challenging landscape to take the research from the bench to the market. He encouraged Danny to stay focused on his project, devote energy to keep it going, and keep abreast of all the different moving parts of a research project – including testing, publishing and initiating the commercialisation process.
Assoc Prof Chua, who is also Head of Department of Head and Neck and Thoracic Cancers at NCCS, was reflective about the key to forming a solid and productive bond between a mentor and mentee.
"It has to be bilateral," said Assoc Prof Chua. "There must be humility from both parties so that a mentee isn't just there to listen and a mentor isn't just there to dish out advice.”
“A mentor-mentee relationship is about investing in people. A mentee has to be able to trust that the mentor's track record shows that their advice is the right way forward. At the same time, a mentor has to be able to really listen to a mentee and acknowledge when they have a different perspective or make a fair point."
The collective mentorship of the entire PASPORT team has been instrumental in shaping the budding clinician-scientist career of Dr Danny Tng, who is also an adjunct Research Fellow at Duke-NUS.
"I am grateful to have been taken under the wing of my clinician-scientist mentors and have learned so much," shared Danny. "Prof Soo taught me to always think broadly when approaching problems, while Prof Chua motivated me with his unlimited energy and drive and taught me to stay focused and complete tasks in parallel to achieve things quickly and efficiently. Their mentorship has been invaluable in shaping my career.”
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