A molecular biologist outlines his multiway efforts in eradicating cancer

By R.N. Sugitha Nadarajah
Photo: Benny Ang

Recently, AMOR Media team had the opportunity to interview Associate Prof Dr Cheah Yoke Kqueen, head of Unit of Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics at University Putra Malaysiaai??i??s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, regarding his research in the field of Molecular Biology.

Dr Cheah is also a Molecular Diagnostic consultant at Subang Jaya Medical Centre and is currently a researcher with the Malaysia Antarctic Research Program, a project by the University of Malayaai??i??s National Antarctic Research Centre that has regularly sent Malaysian scientists to work at Antarcticaai??i??s Scott Base research facility with the New Zealand Antarctic Programme.

Dr Cheah is the president and founder of the newly formed biomedical association BioMedKL, and he also serves as an exco member of Young Scientist Network (YSN)-ASM.

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r Cheah Yoke Kqueen: I am a molecular biologist by training, so my work mainly focuses on molecular components from humans, microbes, and also natural products. My basic training was mostly on biomedical.

I am also involved in the Malaysia Antarctic Research Program that contributes to drug discoveries. At the same time, Iai??i??m working on biodiversity. Why biodiversity, one might ask? This is because we know that some particular components of a drug can actually be derived from microbes.

What drew me into cancer research is the fact that every single researcher who is working in this field is trying to look for this ai???magic bulletai??? ai??i?? a certain approach that can be applied to all types of cancers once and for all, a bullet that kills all cancers so that there is no return of the cancer. Right now, we have cancers that are resistant and thus leading to relapse.

We know that there are a lot of mutations which cause the cancer to be more susceptible or sensitive towards certain types of drugs. If you look at the trend right now, molecular diagnostics is one of the main areas that actually determines whether or not a particular person is suitable for treatment with certain drugs.

The genotype of the cancers, which is figured out via molecular diagnostics, will determine whether a particular person is suitable for treatment with certain type of drugs; for example, tyrosine kinase inhibitors is being used in targeted therapies nowadays for cancer patients.

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Multiple methods

My approach is through the different ways of attacking cancers. Cancer is a very complex disease and it is either contributed by the environment, genetics, or nutrition, etc. My focus is on the genetics, the epigenetics and also the drug components. If you look at the genetics per se and if you know the genotype of the cancers, then you will know how they would react towards certain type of drugs.

Secondly, we look at the synthetic and the natural products. For synthetics, we work with some collaborators who synthesize metacompounds. For natural compounds, we work on some microbes especially, because these microbes possess some bioactive compounds that target cancers cells. In our research, weai??i??ve actually found some novel compounds, which I canai??i??t reveal here, but we are working on that.

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Another approach that we are seriously looking into now is using microbes that attack cancers. In the ongoing project that Iai??i??m involved in right now, with the Malaysia Antarctic Research Program, we are working as a group to look at how this particular bacteria exists in diverse temperatures, surviving in tropics as well as in extreme environments. We identified one very new compound ai??i?? not fractions, but a compound. Weai??i??ve identified the structures, and part of the fractions has been patented in Malaysia, and the compound shows effective response towards cancer cells particularly colorectal and breast cancers.

So, if you look at all my research, I have used a lot of different approaches. But the ultimate aim is to actually target the cancer cells. This is because we know that by only focusing on one approach, you wouldnai??i??t be able to actually kill all the cancer cells.

Collective effort

If you talk to some pathologists, they will always say that molecular biology now goes hand in hand with them. Without molecular biology, the pathologists are unable to move forward with their work especially on the diagnostics part.

In terms of the challenges faced by researchers in this field, of course, the huge challenge that we are facing now is the funding, because anything involving molecular diagnostics tends to be very expensive.

Apart from that, we know that the pathology consortium has been trained in all these things but not in molecular diagnostics. While they are focusing more on the true morphology of cells, right now they are moving towards molecular diagnostics, and sooner or later you will see the emergence of more and more molecular devices targeting cancer.

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If I am asked whether there is anything that I would like to see in the field of molecular biology in the future, like all researchers, I hope that our research findings can be transpired to the society. It can be useful to the society. In addition to this, we hope that the research finding is not only useful to humans but it is also useful to animals.

The animal models that I am working with in the lab right now are also exhibiting similar trends as in humans. Cancers among animals are increasing but currently animals are only getting treated with human drugs. There are no drugs designed yet specifically for animals.

Other than that, the ideal hope of all researchers is to collaborate, so that we do not only conduct research and produce results relating only to a single person, single individual or single university. Conclusively, it is about collective approach and effort in combating cancer.