As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, the subject matter experts and thought-leaders of NUS are taking on this challenge from multiple fronts. By pioneering rapid diagnostic techniques, exploring potential vaccines, investigating therapeutics, and carefully surveilling new outbreaks, this article introduces the researchers from many different disciplines who have the expertise needed to take on the novel coronavirus.
NUS experts are researching and assisting in the development of innovative diagnostic tests to confirm or determine the presence of COVID-19.
Assistant Professor Danielle Anderson
Asst Prof Anderson is the Scientific Director of the ABSL3 Laboratory at Duke-NUS. She is a virologist and has been studying viruses for the past 20 years. “I am interested in how viruses make people sick and what parts of the virus cause disease,” she explained.
Asst Prof Anderson and her team are working on a variety of tests to understand COVID-19 better. “Our group has isolated the virus from a sick patient and is now working with that virus in the ABSL3 containment lab,” she said.
In parallel, she is developing different tests that detect and measure antibodies in infected and recovered patients. These tests provide an estimate of the time the person was infected.
Associate Professor Vincent Chow
Assoc Prof Chow from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine works with Singapore and international partners to elucidate cellular and molecular interactions that are crucial in determining infectious disease severity and resolution.
The aim is to discover biomarkers and signatures that can help to predict disease severity, resolution or response to preventive and therapeutic strategies.
“We are collaborating in a project to screen approved drugs as well as other synthetic and naturally derived compounds for inhibitory activities against COVID-19,” he said.
These potentially promising compounds will also be tested for antiviral efficacy against a range of related coronaviruses.
Associate Professor Paul MacAry
Assoc Prof MacAry from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine is an immunologist investigating how the immune system detects and responds to viruses and other germs that cause human diseases.
“Our own immune system is the strongest weapon that we can harness to fight COVID-19,” he said. As such, the current vaccine research being conducted on this virus seeks to use this principle to its advantage.
“My laboratory is profiling the immune response in patients who have recovered from COVID-19 infection in Singapore. We aim to identify the key cells and molecules that allowed these people to fight off this infection,” he explained.
This translates into vital information for vaccine development against coronavirus, as well as into new kits and tests that can be used to diagnose and manage infected patients.
Assistant Professor Shao Huilin
Interested in non-invasive molecular diagnostics, as well as novel assay development for point-of-care medical applications, Asst Prof Shao from NUS Biomedical Engineering and the NUS Institute for Health Innovation and Technology, has recently developed a technology known as enVision, which can conduct specific and sensitive disease screening and detection.
Asst Prof Shao and her team are modifying enVision to allow for the detection of the coronavirus in as little as 30 minutes. This method is highly sensitive and operates entirely at room temperature. It generates signals that are detected by the naked eye and are readily quantified through smartphones.
Professor Wang Linfa
Prof Wang is the Director of the Programme in Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS. His research focusses on emerging zoonotic viruses, with a special interest on bat-borne viruses.
He is currently working with various collaborators on three different levels to combat the COVID-19 virus.
First, he is conducting scientific research directly facilitating outbreak responses, from virus culturing to diagnostic test development, to testing potential treatment options.
Secondly, he is working with clinicians and the Ministry of Health to contribute to the national response team.
Finally, he is working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international bodies to help the international effort in fighting COVID-19, including serving on the WHO International Health Regulations Emergency Committee.
NUS researchers from many disciplines are investigating favourable treatments for COVID-19 to maximise therapeutic effects, minimise side effects and conserve resources.
Associate Professor Justin Chu
Assoc Prof Chu is a molecular virologist from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine who is actively engaged in the study of the molecular biology of medically important viruses.
Currently, he and his team are supporting the activities of Singapore’s National Public Health Laboratory towards surveillance of COVID-19 in Singapore.
“We are also providing a platform for researchers in NUS and the National University Health System to test new drugs and vaccines against COVID-19, and to develop diagnostic tools for detecting the coronavirus,” he said.
“As not much is known about COVID-19 since it is a new disease, we have also developed Standard Operating Procedures in compliance with national regulations for the safe handling of the coronavirus. We are also training users on these safe handling practices to ensure personal, communal, and environmental protection against contracting this virus,” he explained.
Professor Dean Ho
Prof Ho, Head of NUS Biomedical Engineering, who is also Director of the NUS N.1 Institute for Health and the Institute for Digital Medicine (WisDM), is investigating the use of artificial intelligence (AI) platforms to discover new effective drug combinations and dosing strategies.
“With our AI platforms, we don’t have to screen all of the possible drug combinations, which is an unsurmountable task using traditional screening approaches,” he explained.
This revolutionary technology is able to develop an optimal, fixed-dose combination by picking the best drug and best doses at the same time. This drastically reduces the number of experiments needed to find this ultimate combination, and could revolutionise new drug development, and optimise drug repurposing.
Better yet, the platform can be immediately implemented on any other infectious disease model in the future. “When an aggressive pathogen hits, a rapid response such as optimised drug repurposing is needed, and this response may need to evolve quickly as the pathogen evolves. Using our platform, when the next aggressive pathogen hits, we will be ready,” he said.
Professor Paul Tambyah
He is a clinician who is involved in research with his patients. “Patients contribute to science by taking part in clinical trials which are studies of the safety and effectiveness of new drugs, diagnostic tests or vaccines,” he said.
On his work in tackling the novel coronavirus, Prof Tambyah shared, “We are involved in a number of research projects to better understand how coronavirus is spread and what are the best drugs that can be used to treat patients infected with the virus.”
Associate Professor Tan Yee Joo
“The aim of my laboratory is to understand how viruses can infect and subsequently employ the host cell machineries for their own benefits,” she explained.
With regards to the COVID-19 crisis, her laboratory is currently working on virus isolation from clinical samples and establishing assays for drug screening and virus characterisation.
“In collaboration with local and overseas scientists, we are also developing new technologies that may help in the development of diagnostic assays that are suitable for point-of-care testing,” she said.
In addition, she acts as a coordinator for researchers working on virology and serology within the COVID-19 Research Workgroup, which is spearheaded by the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.
NUS thought-leaders are also tackling the COVID-19 crisis through the interdisciplinary field of public health. Through the surveillance of cases and health indicators, and by the promotion of healthy behaviours, these experts are at the forefront of preventing the spread of the disease.
Associate Professor Alex Cook
Assoc Prof Cook from the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health is using computer models to analyse the status of public health. “Modelling means we construct mathematical or computational representations of real life, which allows us to test out interventions in the model and see what the effects might be, or to project how an unfolding epidemic might evolve,” he explained.
Assoc Prof Cook’s team has been working on various projects to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak.
Some of the projects include analysing the potential impact of workplace distancing, providing assistance on outbreak investigations, and assessing the impact on the transmissibility of the virus. They also look at the modelling findings from other parts of the world, and interpret signals from different surveillance systems.
Professor Dale Fisher
Infectious disease specialist Prof Fisher from the Department of Medicine at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and his team perform a variety of studies related to transmission and infection control.
“We also publish on observational and health services efforts, and in my national and international roles, I write commentaries, editorials, guidelines for healthcare workers and do quite a bit with the lay media to educate and inform the public,” he said.
When describing the ways in which he and his collaborators are combatting the COVID-19 crisis, he shared, “I use my experience in outbreak response to inform coordination and various measures at international, national, cluster and hospital levels.”
The Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network which Prof Fisher chairs includes over 250 organisations, institutions and agencies is closely involved in international readiness, response and coordination.
Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang
Assoc Prof Hsu is an infectious disease expert from the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health who conducts research in antibiotic resistance and global health. “My colleagues and I work to improve antibiotic prescribing, track drug-resistant bacteria, and develop new interventions to prevent their spread,” he explained.
Regarding the COVID-19 crisis, Assoc Prof Hsu works to facilitate collaborative research between his colleagues and other researchers in Singapore to better understand the virus, and to address the secondary public health issues caused by it.
“As this outbreak is also an issue of public understanding and communication, I am attempting various means of conveying the results of research and understanding of the situation to others outside the medical and public health community,” he said.