We’re all bound to experience hearing news about someone — whether it’s an acquaintance, a close relative, or even ourselves, facing a serious illness. To many, the solution is to fight with the existing medicine we have.
But what if we’re faced with something that isn’t necessarily curable or would be detrimental to one’s condition of living, like cancer? How would you react to a circumstance like this?
For Dr. Foo Jhi Biau, Senior Lecturer from Taylor’s School of Pharmacy, these difficult encounters turned into inspiration and motivations for both his research. Through his encounters with those suffering from cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, he was inspired to research new therapeutic agents for these diseases that could ultimately lead patients towards a better quality of life.
Completing his Bachelors in Biomedical Sciences and later pursuing his PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology, the Rising Star Award recipient Dr. Foo shares his journey heading into this field and the game-changing research he’s currently undertaking.
Q: You’ve been in the field of biomedical sciences ever since you got out of high school! What made you go into this field and how has your journey shaped you as a lecturer and researcher?
A: Inspired by my brother who’s a medical doctor, I wanted to venture into the field of medicine after finishing Form 6. At the same time, I’d developed a passion to do research so I decided to enroll in Biomedical Science since it gave me the best of both worlds. During my degree, I realised I could present very well and, at the same time, develop my research skills.
With these skills, I knew exactly what I needed to do whenever different experiments didn’t go as planned despite the efforts put in especially when I was a postgraduate student. Though it was still disappointing when the results weren’t satisfactory, now, as a lecturer and supervisor, I'm able to better guide my students whenever they face any difficult challenges.
Q: How did your passion to research new therapeutic agents come about?
A: Cancer has always been known to rob many lives — my family members and friends included. Even back then, after I graduated in 2007, this field was very popular because we all wanted to save lives and I wanted to be a part of that process. My fundamental project is towards anti-cancer research and how the drugs affect a person’s body. I’ve always dreamed about coming up with a new drug that can help with this.
The other area that I’ve also explored is cell-free therapy which is another kind of drug discovery. Why I jumped from the field of cancer and into another area of research is because the cell-free therapy project itself is driven by the industry.
Q: Let’s dive deeper into the research on new drugs for cancer first. Can you tell me more about how that started?
A: In 2019, I received a grant from the Ministry of Higher Education on this multidisciplinary research involving targeted therapy on cancer cells, where we design and create drug candidates that can help kill cancer cells.
Our first stage, which we’ve already successfully completed, involved engaging with experts of the particular software. Through this software, we’re able to design the drugs and then simulate their binding into targeted cancer cells’ protein. When the drug binds strongly to the protein, we presume that cancer cell growth will be inhibited.
That’s all a part of the 1st phase of simulation, we’re now moving onto the next phase of the research where we synthesise these compounds in the laboratory and, in the near future, test them in the cancer cells to validate the concept of the study.
Q: Looking at this research’s potential towards cancer patients and their livelihood, has there been any sort of similar research conducted before? What are your goals for this research?
A: Well, it was started by other researchers before but, unfortunately, there’s no advancement for the particular project since 2011. The limitations of the compound found in the clinical trials have yet to be satisfactorily addressed.
Our group initiated this project because we wanted it to benefit the patients in the hospitals — a rather ambitious goal but we’re very ambitious people. One of the end goals I wish to see is the output of this research to be patented and commercialised.
We’re currently in the pre-clinical stage and are planning to patent the information and data gathered. As for its commercialisation, it’d probably take longer than 5 years depending on the support from the pharmaceutical industry.
Q: We look forward to the day when I’m able to see your research commercialised! What about Cell-free therapy research? How did you get involved in it?
A: It’s very driven by those in the industry. In 2018, they approached to ask if we could research it since Taylor’s possessed the necessary equipment. At that point, many researchers work on exosomes, or small extracellular vesicles (sEVs), to find out the biomarkers of cancer cells which helps them to predict the outcome and possibly create a better treatment plan for cancer patients.
For stem cells’ sEVs research, it was at the infant stage in Malaysia. Our team took up this challenge to isolate and characterise the sEVs from stem cells. The success of the research work has linked many research collaborations with other research institutes and universities.
Another motivation to take up this research was driven by my father who’s actually a Parkinson’s patient — a neurodegenerative brain disease. I went into the project in hopes that I can use cell-free therapy to benefit Parkinson’s patients. At this moment, you can only use drugs to control neurodegeneration but there’s nothing that can help to actually reverse it.
Q: That’s really touching that both research are motivated by the people you know. What are the benefits of going into cell-free therapy?
A: Stem cells are commonly used to repair injured tissues. However, the main concern of the use of stem cells is that the cells may turn into abnormal cells in the human body. Because of this major concern, researchers have moved into cell-free therapy.
All this while, we thought that stem cells must be introduced into the body to repair the injured tissues. However, evidence showed that tissue repair or regeneration could be achieved with the sEVs harvested and concentrated from the medium that was used to grow stem cells. That is what makes cell-free therapy.
Q: Seeing that both research are challenging, what were some of the difficulties faced? Are there any students working with you on this project?
A: For the drug design and synthesis cancer project, I've a master student who is synthesising the compounds in the laboratory. The challenging part of the work is the multisteps and upscaling of the synthesis that require high-end equipment for validation. All these challenges have to be carefully addressed for future clinical application.
For the cell-free therapy project, I currently have a Master’s student who’s about to complete and submit his thesis. And there are definitely some difficulties. As there are limited references in Malaysia, we had to confidently pick up and move on with the things we know. We had to persevere through experiments, exploring, and developing new methods in accordance with the stringent protocol as set by International Society Cell & Gene Therapy. What makes it more difficult is that the method that we develop must be suitable for clinical application. Hence, the protocol has to be clean, non-toxic and affordable.
Q: Have you ever encountered any students that weren’t willing to be part of this research?
A: I’ve encountered a few students that the moment I showed them the projects, they started doubting themselves and backing out from it. Some are willing to take the challenge and as a supervisor, we always try to empathise, encourage, and remind them that we’re always there to guide them.
Some would even question why they should be a pioneer in the research but that’s the point of research! We should be the pioneers to make our work novel and appreciated by others. Plus, you would also get a ton of opportunities in new areas. Looking back, if I had turned down the cell-free therapy research, I’d miss the opportunity to collaborate with other research institutes and universities.
Q: Learning from your experience going into a new field of research, what’s your advice to students venturing into the unknown?
A: You need to know what you want to be in the future. That’s the most important thing. If you’ve decided where you want to be in the next 5 or 10 years, then no matter how difficult the project is, you need to maintain your belief in yourself that you can do it and overcome the obstacles you may face.
Once you’ve overcome the obstacles and progress through the different stages, you’ll end up more knowledgeable and become a good researcher in the future.
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