Peh Yean was a research fellow in Prof. William Chia’s laboratory from 1990-1996. She received her Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Arizona, Tucson, did a short stint as a post-doctoral fellow in the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles before coming back to Asia. She is now the Co-Director/Senior Scientist of the Colorectal Cancer Research Laboratory at the Singapore General Hospital, the largest tertiary hospital in Singapore and an aspiring academic center of medical excellence. She also holds joint appointment as an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University Singapore (NUS), as well as at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, NUS.
“My Ph.D. was on the application of molecular genetics in the etiology of colorectal cancer (CRC). However, when Chris called and I agreed to join IMCB, he convinced me that a research fellowship in the Drosophila neurogenesis laboratory was what I needed at that juncture of my research career. So, I joined Prof. William (Bill) Chia’s laboratory and smelled ether and killed flies for six years. Two things I learnt from Bill (besides sharpening my knowledge on genetics) are that one has to learn to do what is needed to get the research going (‘just do it’), but at the same time, learn how to let go when the project is going no way or when you have been scooped. These two invaluable lessons I have carried with me to my next job. In between, I had my second child and made many fast friends in the fly room as well as in the lounges of IMCB. I have, for example, the privilege of befriending the late Prof. Veronica Rodrigues, an eminent fly geneticist from the TATA institute, India who visited the laboratory annually. Ever so genteel in her interaction with students and post-doctoral fellows; yet firm and single-minded in her pursuit of scientific excellence, she exemplified how one can be a good scientist and yet not lose the human (and feminine) touch.
When a chance to helm the colorectal cancer (CRC) research laboratory at SGH opened up, it was an opportunity too good to pass over. I have been at SGH since. It was a complete change of environment. Though I knew the fundamentals of CRC from my graduate days, I had never dealt with human specimens before and was not acquainted with the intricacies of ethical issues that come with it. There were the social aspects of having to deal with doctors, patients and other medical professionals that I was not exposed to at the bench. There is also this business of applying for grant to keep the laboratory going and balancing the money when the grant comes through … I had to learn on the job, fast. On the other hand, the laboratory, being in a clinical department, is uniquely poised for translational research, which bridges basic and clinical, and hence at the forefront of current research landscape.
Today, together with the Singapore Polyposis Registry, the laboratory is the only facility that offers gene testing for familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), a familial form of CRC, in the region. The ability to exhaustively screen the adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) gene, which causes FAP, has also enabled us to identify the underlying defect for other familial syndrome patients. For example, we have shown that the disease locus for Singapore patients diagnosed with Hereditary Mixed Polyposis Syndrome (HMPS) is not linked to chromosome 15q13, as in the Ashkenazi Jews. Rather, we mapped it to chromosome 10q23 and showed that mutation in the bone morphogenesis protein receptor 1A (BMPR1A) gene is responsible for the phenotype, enabling presymptomatic gene testing to be extended to HMPS family members.
The unique combination of clinical samples with clinicopathological data, molecular techniques and bioinformatics has enabled us to identify new disease-causing genes/biomarkers and potential therapeutic targets, as well as provide insights into new interactive mechanisms for colorectal tumorigenesis. It has also enabled us to forge fruitful collaborations with basic scientists and biostatisticians from NUS as well as Duke-NUS towards better understanding and treatment strategies for the disease.
Looking back, I have learnt a lot from my time at IMCB, and yes, the stint at the Fly Laboratory did prepare me for the real world in more ways that I can count. Thank You, IMCB!”