A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) fellow, Dr Wan Yue, has become the first Singaporean to receive the prestigious Branco Weiss Fellowship given by the Swiss-based ‘Society in Science’ philanthropic organisation.
The fellowship program was initiated and financed by the Swiss entrepreneur Dr. Branco Weiss, who passed away in October 2010. The organisation gives out 10 fellowships to outstanding scientists every year and come with a grant to further each scientist’s research.
In recognition of Dr Wan’s work, ‘Society in Science’ has awarded S$700,000 towards her research to tackle the global health issue of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).
According to a 2014 World Health Organization report, AMR threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi. This is because common bacteria are becoming resistant to treatments in many parts of the world. WHO says that there is an urgent need to develop new ways to deal with the rise in AMR.
A key step to tackling AMR is to find out how pathogenic microorganisms attain their ability to resist the effects of antimicrobial drugs. Dr Wan aims to shed light on microbial drug resistance by studying the genes or RNA of microbes. It is hoped that her research will uncover critical genetic junctures in microbes that will come in useful in the search for new antimicrobial treatments.
Dr Wan was one of the first scientists to develop a high throughput approach to study RNA shapes in microorganisms. An aspect of the study is to look at how pathogenic microorganisms sense and respond to their environment for survival and pathogenesis, such as Listeria monocytogenes bacteria that utilises an RNA switch that encodes virulent proteins that harm the body. At room temperature, the bacteria’s RNA is inactive, but when exposed to higher temperatures, like in the body, the RNA switch is “turned on” and activates the bacteria’s production of virulent proteins. Many such RNA switches remain to be discovered in clinically important pathogens. By understanding the biological pathway that switches microbial RNA on and off, Dr Wan plans to identify elements within the pathway that can be targeted by future drugs.
"I am extremely honoured to receive the Branco Weiss Fellowship for Society in Science,” said Dr Wan. “The ultimate goal of scientific discoveries is to advance human society. I am excited that my technology can contribute innovative solutions to existing problems, such as anti-microbial resistance, in our society. I hope that this investment in science will help shape our future."
Prof Ng Huck Hui, Executive Director of GIS, said, “GIS is exceedingly proud of Dr Wan’s achievements. It means a lot that our young scientists such as Dr Wan are able to compete internationally for an award that is given to high-potential researchers, with a passion to advance the society through blazing new trails in impactful research. Dr Wan’s research in identifying unknown RNA switches in pathogens has the potential to transform the way to fight pathogens in human diseases.”
“For decades, antibiotics have been one of the pillars that allowed us to live longer and healthier. But the emergence of antimicrobial resistance threatens to pull us back from medical advances humans have made,” said Dr Benjamin Seet, Executive Director of the Biomedical Research Council, A*STAR. “Dr Wan Yue is a good example of the brilliant talents that are contributing to A*STAR’s goal of creating excellent science towards better healthcare in society.”
Dr Wan graduated with a BSc in Biochemistry and Cell Biology from the University of California, San Diego, and received her PhD in Cancer Biology from Stanford University, USA. She was also a recipient of the A*STAR National Science Scholarship in 2003.