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  29 March 2010  
  Where are they now? - Episode 4  

Kanaga Sabapathy, Ph.D (IMCB, 1990-1994)

Dr Kanaga Sabapathy is a Principal Investigator at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, heading the Molecular Carcinogenesis laboratory and is an Associate Professor at the Cancer & Stem Cell Biology Program at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Department of Biochemistry at NUS.

This is what Kanaga has to say about his scientific journey:

"When I completed my B.Sc. Honours degree at the NUS Zoology department under the supervision of Dr. Ding JL in early 1990, I received two offers: one was to join the Department of Community, Occupational & Family Medicine at NUS as a senior tutor in Biostatistics, and the other was to join IMCB as a Junior Research Fellow. The former appeared to be stable and safe, with the possibility of getting a Ph.D. from a foreign university sponsored by the department, and a secure job as a lecturer upon my return. However, I chose the latter for a simple reason: to help in the fight against cancer and to help mankind – words which I uttered at the interview with the then IMCB Director, Professor Chris Tan, and in which I still believe and am working towards fulfilling in a small way by contributing as much as I can to the field.

It was 1990, and IMCB – endowed with all the wherewithal of getting things done without having to worry about funding and resources – was undeniably the best bet for doing the finest biomedical research in Singapore. I joined Dr. Hui Kam Man’s Molecular Immunology laboratory. My task was “simple”: to identify the immune cells that were capable of mounting an immune response in rejecting cancer cells lacking the MHC class I antigens. It was the beginning of the era of gene therapy, and Kam had previously shown that re-introduction of the missing MHC antigens into tumour cells would elicit an immune response, and that immunological memory was able to recognize parental tumour cells lacking the MHC antigen. Although it sounded simple, it wasn’t, but after some time and a lot of effort, we managed to isolate and characterize the unique population of cells that were responsible for the tumour immunity. During that time, superantigens were gaining a lot of attention, and we attempted to elicit a strong immune response against the tumor cells using the superantigens, with the hope of finding a good way to eradicate cancer. With these studies completed, I submitted my Ph.D. thesis, in what was once considered a record time of about 4 years. My days in IMCB were truly exhilarating, as I was exposed to real competitive science, that not only generated the urge to succeed at the highest level, but gave a sense of confidence that we could do the best and compete with the best. There were so many fantastic people in the laboratory and the institute as a whole, and the pantry was a great meeting place to share ideas, where the Brits could always be seen, even if the clock failed, at 10am and 3pm for coffee and tea, and of course, for more science! Those early years at IMCB really paved the way for greater challenges ahead.

I got married after my Ph.D., and left for Vienna, Austria, to the Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP), where I joined the group of Professor Erwin Wagner, who was among the first to introduce transgenic mice technology to continental Europe. This was followed by another 5 years of intense work, essentially 24/7, trying to learn mouse genetics to generate genetically modified mice, which were used in our studies to understand the role of the c-Jun-N-terminal kinase signaling cascade. Time in Vienna was truly great; with music in the air and science all around the fantastic IMP – which was exactly similar to IMCB in the set-up: there were no worries about funding – we were there to perform to the best of our abilities. It was a very stimulating and inspiring environment, where I met so many very good people who are now leaders in the scientific community. This is also where my son Tirupathi Ramana was born – on a Sunday, so that daddy could be back in the laboratory on Monday!

At the end of 1999, I had to come back to Singapore due to family reasons. The National Cancer Centre had just started, and this is where I set up my own laboratory. It was then that I realized that working on the bench was much easier than looking at quotations and writing grants. Even more exigent was getting into a field of research that was not my terrain – the already “overcrowded” p53 field. Nonetheless, time has gone by and it’s almost a decade since I have been back, and we are well into the p53/p73 community. I have been lucky to have met and worked with many dynamic people in my own laboratory. The culture of having a diverse laboratory, learnt from my days at IMCB and in Erwin’s laboratory, has caught on: I have had people from over 15 nationalities in my laboratory. Although this diversity is occasionally challenging, overall, this has been a great benefit for the laboratory.

Life is different now, with a lot more administrative work, serving in/for review bodies and journals, advisory roles, being a mentor and examiner of students, and on top of that all, raising money and trying to publish big. Nonetheless, the focus is to be very good at what we do, to get international recognition, and of course, to contribute to the knowledge towards the fight against cancer. As it was when I started, the quest to know everything and anything still remains, but it is more refined now because of my years of experience (and the account balances when grant levels are low!) Yet, my passion for science has diminished not one iota – instead, it has increased immensely as I learn to appreciate that with focus and hard work, a lot can be achieved.

The journey that began in IMCB continues steadily, with maturity, confidence and gusto, towards the original goal of contributing to the fight against cancer."



(C) Copyright 2012 Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, A*STAR Singapore.