Top national honours for research excellence

Four NUS-affiliated researchers have received national recognition for their excellent achievements and contributions in science and technology. At a ceremony held at the Istana on 18 December 2020, Professor Ranga Rama Krishnan (former Dean of Duke-NUS Medical School), Professor Dario Campana, and Professor Liu Jianjun were conferred the prestigious President’s Science and Technology Awards (PSTA) – this is the highest honour bestowed on research scientists and engineers in Singapore – and Assistant Professor John Ho received the Young Scientist Award.

Conferred annually, the PSTA celebrate outstanding and invaluable contributions by individuals or teams to Singapore’s research and development landscape. Similarly, the Young Scientist Awards (YSA), administered by the Singapore National Academy of Science (SNAS), and supported by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), are presented to researchers aged 35 and below who have the potential to be world-class researchers in their fields of expertise.

President's Science and Technology Medal

Professor Ranga Rama Krishnan, former Dean of Duke-NUS Medical School who is the current Chairman of the National Medical Research Council, and Chief Executive Officer of the Rush University System for Health, was conferred the President’s Science and Technology Medal (PSTM).

The PSTM is the highest honour given out by the PSTA. Prof Ranga was recognised for his outstanding leadership contributions to advancing the health and biomedical sciences research and innovation sector in Singapore, particularly through the strengthening of academic medicine, translational and clinical research, and the promotion of technology transfer and entrepreneurship to enhance health and support economic development in Singapore.

At Duke-NUS, Prof Ranga played a critical role in laying the foundations for the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre. This was done in close partnership with SingHealth, as well as NUS and A*STAR. Under his leadership, Duke-NUS established five signature research programmes – covering cancer and stem cell biology, neuroscience and behavioural disorders, emerging infectious diseases, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, as well as health services and systems research – to address the key healthcare concerns of Singapore and Asia. He was also instrumental in building outstanding centres of excellence.

Prof Krishnan has made the science of learning a priority in his work. His leadership has enabled NUS to build a strong research and translational programme in this area.

In his acceptance speech, Prof Ranga said, “I am so fortunate to have worked with so many outstanding, creative, and innovative individuals, and for their lasting friendships. Words cannot express my gratitude for giving me such opportunities.”

President's Technology Award

Professor Dario Campana from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine received the President’s Technology Award (PTA) in the Individual category.

The focus of Prof Campana’s research is to use immune cells to treat cancer. He is world-renowned for his outstanding work in transforming the treatment of leukaemia, particularly Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL), which is the most common cancer in children.

20 years ago, Prof Campana’s laboratory set out to develop a more effective and less toxic treatment for ALL using T cells, a type of white blood cell that plays an important role in the immune system. The team designed a special receptor, called the chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), that could recognise a target strongly expressed in ALL. When T cells are equipped with the CAR, they latch onto leukaemic cells, kill them, and propagate, mounting a powerful anti-leukaemic response. Clinical trials so far showed that blood T cells that are extracted from ALL patients, modified with the CAR and reinfused back into the patients, could cure ALL even when all other therapies had failed.

The CAR developed by Prof Campana’s team eventually became the key component of the first product of its kind approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and is now marketed worldwide. For this discovery, Prof Campana received the 2019 Jacob and Louise Gabbay Award in Biotechnology and Medicine.

On being conferred the PTA, Prof Campana said, “Receiving this award is humbling, it is an honour, and I take it as recognition of the work of all our team. In Singapore, we have all the elements to do outstanding science. I think we can be leaders in any field we choose. We just need to get into the frame of mind that we can do it.”

President's Science Award

Professor Liu Jianjun from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, and Deputy Executive Director of A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore, won the President's Science Award (PSA) in the Individual category.

Prof Liu is a leading human geneticist who studies Asian populations and has advanced the understanding of diseases and treatment outcomes among Asians through his work in the field.

By collaborating with clinician-scientists and many research groups in Singapore and Asia, Prof Liu has established an internationally recognised and distinctive research programme on the genetics of Asian populations. His research has not only advanced the biological understanding of diseases that are prevalent in these populations, but he has also discovered Asian biomarkers that have been translated into clinical practice and enabled the prevention of diseases and adverse drug responses.

Besides leading a competitive research programme on Asian genetics, Prof Liu has also contributed to building technical capabilities and infrastructure for high-throughput genomic analyses in Singapore.

“I believe human genetics will play the major role in the development of precision medicine. Asian populations are very much understudied in this field, and if this is not overcome, it will limit our ability to enjoy the full benefit of precision medicine,” Prof Liu shared.

Young Scientist Award

Assistant Professor John Ho from NUS Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Institute for Health Innovation and Technology (iHealthtech) received the Young Scientist Award.

Asst Prof Ho’s research seeks to develop wireless technologies that address important challenges in medicine and healthcare. He pursues fundamental advances in electromagnetics and bioelectronics, as well as novel approaches in device engineering and system integration for translational applications.

Working closely with life scientists and clinicians, his research aims to apply innovative technologies to demonstrate new approaches to study, diagnose, and treat disease. Some examples of devices developed by Asst Prof Ho and his collaborators include micro-implants that deliver light for targeted cancer therapy and smart clothing for daily health monitoring purposes.

“One of the remarkable things about Singapore is the amount of trust they put into young scientists. To me, STEM is the idea of play – it’s the way we understand and shape the world around us,” said Asst Prof Ho.