NUS researcher inducted into prestigious EMBO Young Investigator Programme

Only Singapore-based scientist to receive the accolade this year

Assistant Professor Polly Leilei Chen, who is from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore (CSI Singapore), has been inducted into the prestigious Young Investigator Programme, an initiative under the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO).

Asst Prof Chen, whose work primarily focuses on research in ribonucleic acid (RNA) biology and human cancer, is the only Singapore-based scientist among this year’s awardees and she joins 25 other life science researchers from 10 countries who will receive support from EMBO during the foundation of their first independent laboratory. 

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Asst Prof Polly Leilei Chen of NUS is the only Singapore-based scientist to be inducted into the prestigious EMBO Young Investigator Programme this year.

The EMBO Young Investigator Programme identifies recent group leaders with proven record of scientific excellence and offers them access to a range of benefits during their four-year tenure. These include a funding award and practical support such as mentorship by a senior from the community, access to training in leadership skills and responsible research practices, as well as networking opportunities.

Asst Prof Chen joined CSI Singapore as a Senior Research Scientist in 2012, and she became a fully independent Principal Investigator in June 2014. She now leads a team studying epigenetic mechanisms such as RNA editing and its role in cancer development. Asst Prof Chen is also a faculty member of the Department of Anatomy at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. In 2014, she received the NUS Young Investigator Award, and in the following year, she was conferred the NUS President Assistant Professorship in recognition of her exceptional research profile and strong trajectory as a very highly qualified junior faculty.

She was among a group of investigators to first describe RNA editing dysregulation in human cancers including liver, stomach and esophageal cancer. Together with her team, Asst Prof Chen has gained international recognition for their work. She has been invited to speak at several international conferences, such as the 73rd Annual Meeting of the Japanese Cancer Association in 2014 and the 2017 Gordon Research Conference on RNA Editing – the most renowned conference in the area of RNA editing research.

Among her notable novel scientific contributions include the discovery of the links between RNA editing imbalance and tumorigenesis in three types of gastrointestinal cancers, as well as the uncovering of a previously undescribed mechanism in which a group of enzymes (Adenosine DeAminases acting on double-stranded RNA enzymes also known as ADAR enzymes) regulate the expression of cancer-related genes. Her discovery of the first bidirectional regulator of A-to-I RNA editing and characterising the functional roles of the DHX9 gene also further helped unravel that the regulation of A-to-I RNA editing is much more complex than previously anticipated.

“The focus of my current and future research has been placed on projects which could answer the long-standing questions in the area of RNA editing research, such as the non-ADAR regulators of A-to-I RNA editing and the substrate selectivity and sensitivity of ADAR,” said Asst Prof Chen. “As a young independent investigator, I am personally and passionately committed to becoming a world expert in RNA editing in cancer. Findings from my research has the potential to directly lead to new insights into etiology of tumorigenesis, further providing useful targets for early diagnosis and help develop RNA-based therapeutics, ultimately making a difference in the lives of cancer patients, which fits well with the major health problem in the world.”

“I am honoured to be selected and inducted into the EMBO Young Investigator Programme. With its backing, I can receive extensive support for networking interactions in the form of visits, student exchanges or joint group meetings and other career development opportunities,” she added.