Professor Dean Ho, Provost’s Chair Professor at NUS Biomedical Engineering and NUS Pharmacology, Director of NUS SINAPSE and member of the NUS Biomedical Institute for Global Health Research and Technology was recently elected as Fellow of the prestigious US National Academy of Inventors — the highest professional distinction for academic inventors — for his “prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society”. Prof Ho is the only Singapore-based academic inventor to receive the esteemed accolade this year, as well as the first-ever NUS academic to do so. NUS News delves deeper into the story behind the man — the inspiration and motivation for his work and how he hopes to change the landscape of digital health to significantly improve treatment outcomes for patients throughout the world.
We have all woken up in the morning and felt unwell. For some people, a serious illness may be diagnosed, and regular drug treatments will suddenly be mixed with an attempt to live a normal life. Family and friends will rally around, clinicians will work their best to try and get them back to who they were just a few weeks prior. These patients, the ‘true fighters’, as NUS Professor Dean Ho refers to them, have been the driving force behind his research career, which has consistently focused on improving patient outcomes. The patients are the reason Prof Ho, who was born-and-bred in Los Angeles, left Southern California to settle in Singapore. They are the reason that he is seeking to redefine ‘personalised medicine’, and they are the reason that the stakes have been raised in his research.
Recently appointed as Director of SINAPSE at NUS, which was originally founded as the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology, Prof Ho epitomises what it means to conduct impactful research.
“I like to say that the day you can fold up a journal paper and implant it into a patient is the day I will be satisfied with just publishing. I have always asked, ‘how do we bring this work to the patients?’. Once there are patients involved — when there is us, the clinicians, and a patient — the concept of impact is different, and the responsibility is felt by all involved.”
Prof Ho describes himself as a translational bioengineer. His research interest in bioengineering began in high school — stemming from a single lesson that he remembers vividly. The class had been shown a video of a knee replacement operation. While most of his classmates could not stomach the no-holds-barred view of the operation, he came away with the conviction to declare to his father that he would one day work in orthopaedics. He quickly became aware that medicine was rapidly evolving, and what he had observed in the video would likely be outdated within the decade.
“I was fascinated by the concept of using engineering, of using an emerging knowledge, to get people back up and through rehabilitation faster, while feeling better at the same time.”
While he did not end up pursuing a career as a clinician, Prof Ho followed through with his ambition to help patients in their recovery and rehabilitation. His work has so far focused on nanodiamond-based drug delivery methods, and more recently, on using artificial intelligence (AI) to determine the best possible drug treatment regimens and doses for cancer patients and organ transplant recipients.
The AI platform, known as CURATE.AI, works by assessing a patient’s response to a drug, or combination of drugs, as they are undergoing treatment. The technology can then dynamically suggest dosage levels depending on how the patient is responding. Drug doses may be reduced, yet drug efficacy can increase. The risk of drug side effects is also reduced. Such an approach is a significant shift from traditional methods, where drug dosages are predetermined based on known toxicity levels and efficacy in whole populations. It is for this work that Prof Ho was nominated as a Fellow of the US National Academy of Inventors in 2018.
“When effective drugs are given at suboptimal dosages, efficacy can be substantially impaired, or even absent. This problem is a major cause of clinical trial failure and poor response rates from patients. Using CURATE.AI, we identify the drug dosages that mediate the best possible treatment efficacy for the entire duration of care for each patient. It is important to remember that the same patient is different from themselves from one day to the next. This is why we only use the patient’s own data to optimise their regimen. This information can actually be used to refine dosages that are given to broader populations, or sub-populations of patients. Our ability to do that challenges paradigms, but we have shown that it works.”
The success of CURATE.AI has generated extensive interest from clinicians treating a number of diseases, and is currently being trialled in cancer and organ transplant patients. These clinical trials are run under the guidance of Clinical Trial Coordinator Mr Theodore Kee within SINAPSE’s N.1 Lab and in conjunction with hospitals in Singapore and around the world.
The ability of a university research institute to conduct first-in-human trials of new interventional therapies and devices is no small feat, and stems from what Prof Ho describes as an implicit advantage to conducting translational research in Singapore.
“Not only is everything very efficient in Singapore, but the researchers and clinicians are able to engage directly with the policymakers, the regulators, and those helping us through the administration. Everything is very collaborative, and this has allowed them to ask the questions, and for us to show that the technology works. Now we can scale its impact.”
In the six months since Prof Ho took over the reins of the SINAPSE a significant shift has taken place. He is keen to see the Institute focus on bridging the gap between science and the patient. He is aiming for the clinical trials programme to serve as a resource for clinicians around the world to easily identify strategies to address what are currently the most difficult to treat diseases. Many of his goals, as ambitious as they may seem, are in fact already coming to fruition.
“SINAPSE has a great history of creating very innovative research. I want to harness this experience so that the Institute will be known for its ability to translate Institute-developed technologies into interventional therapies for patients.”
Such accomplishments could be attributed to Prof Ho living his life like a contact sport; when being knocked down, he gets back up and keeps going, and at all times encourages a team effort to attain success together. It is also no surprise then that he works hard, and plays even harder. This as evidenced by his morning routine of lifting weights. While the rest of the campus is just starting to arrive, he and his colleagues are well into their workout session. No doubt, an adrenaline rush and burning muscles are, for Prof Ho, the ideal catalyst to chart out the high impact, high stakes research that he is engaged in.
See press release.