Thailand’s Scientist In Office

Professor Yongyuth Yuthavong, deputy prime minister of Thailand, speaks to Asian Scientist Magazine about his vision for science in Thailand and the ASEAN region.

AsianScientist (Feb. 11, 2016) – Although the idea that advanced training in science can lead to careers beyond the lab is slowly gaining recognition, the realm of politics seems to remain the preserve of lawyers, business people and celebrities. Few countries can claim to have many scientists among their elected officials, but a number Asian countries—which have long prized technical education—seem to be bucking the trend.

The tiny island nation of Singapore, for example, can boast of a president with a PhD in applied mathematics, while her prime minister Lee Hsien Loong—a senior wrangler in his Cambridge days—recently impressed the world with code he wrote for solving Sudoku puzzles. Although not PhD holders, China’s former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zhemin were both trained as engineers.

The appointment of Professor Yongyuth Yuthavong as deputy prime minister of Thailand, however, is possibly the first time a practicing scientist has attained such a high ranking political office. But Yuthavong himself is no stranger to the political life, having served as minister of science and technology for 18 months following a 2006 military coup that ousted Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra.

“I would call it a parallel career. Up to recently I was mainly concerned with science and technology for economic and environmental benefit. Being asked to look after social issues on a national scale is more difficult, but a challenge I have gladly accepted,” Yuthavong told Asian Scientist Magazine.

From papayas to parasites

Outside of politics, Yuthavong’s first career was as a biochemist working on enzymes. Having received a scholarship from the Thai government to pursue his studies overseas, he obtained an undergraduate degree from the University of London and completed his PhD in organic chemistry at Oxford University in 1969. Returning to Thailand in the same year, he embarked on a career at Mahidol University that would endure for close to thirty years.

“When I returned to Thailand, I had hoped to continue my work on papain, a proteinase found in papayas and commonly used as a meat tenderizer. However, as difficult as it was to understand the mechanisms of nature, I found it even more difficult to convince people of the need for basic research,” Yuthavong recounted.

“So I started to think of new problems that would not only excite my own research interests but also be in the interest of my fellow countrymen. That’s how I gradually moved from enzymes in papayas to enzymes in the malaria parasite, a disease that was raging in Thailand in the early 1970s.”

In fact, malaria was a serious public health problem not only for Thailand but many other countries around the world. In the 1950s, a global campaign to eradicate malaria using the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and the drug chloroquine was met with initial success.

However, by 1969 the plan had been abandoned, stalled by drug resistance and sociopolitical factors such as an economic downturn. As control measures began to deteriorate, malaria numbers in the 1970s soared to two to three times the levels of the decade before. A new malaria treatment was desperately needed.

As an enzymologist, Yuthavong naturally tackled the problem from a biochemical perspective.

“I concentrated on an enzyme called dihydrofolate reductase or DHFR for short. As a key regulator of folate metabolism and DNA replication, DHFR is required for the malaria parasite to divide and multiply quickly in the blood stream.

“In 1973, a drug targeting DHFR called sulphadoxine pyrimethamine (SP) replaced chloroquine. Unfortunately, resistance emerged by the 1980s and even spread to the African continent,” Yuthavong explained.

“We decided that we had to understand how the mutations were changing the behavior of DHFR so we looked at the three-dimensional structure of the enzyme, publishing our findings in Nature Structural Biology in 2003.

“By comparing the structures of both sensitive and resistant malaria parasites, we found the mutation that blocked the binding of existing drugs. From there, we began to design and synthesize inhibitors to block DHFR activity.”

In collaboration with researchers from Monash University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and with support from the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), Yuthavong and his team have seen one particular candidate—a flexible diamino pyrimidine called P218—advance to pre-clinical trials. Orally available and relatively cheap to manufacture, P218 could potentially be Thailand’s first ‘home-grown’ drug to enter human trials.

Building Thailand’s R&D capacity

Reaching the landmark of first-in-man trials would be the crowning glory for Yuthavong, a man who has done much to build Thailand’s scientific scene. He was instrumental in the setting up of key institutions such as the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) and the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA). Each of these institutions has in turn played a pivotal role in developing the R&D sector in Thailand.

“To give you an idea of the state of research funding in the 1970s, my first grant was for less than US$300,” Yuthavong shared.

“I knew that we needed a much stronger infrastructure to do good science so I organized a symposium to discuss science policy in the late 1970s. I did not know it at the time, but the symposium acted as a catalyst, spurring the formation of MOST in 1979.”

Shortly after, Yuthavong took up a new cause, leading the 1982 bid for Thailand to build and host the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, a special project of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Although shortlisted by a selection committee, Thailand was eventually passed over in favor of India and Italy instead.

Undaunted, Yuthavong convinced the government that having come so far demonstrated Thailand’s potential to succeed in biotechnology, a potential that should be tapped into with or without international support. In response, BIOTEC was set up in 1983 as a research center under MOST to build up the basic biotechnology infrastructure and disburse scholarships for Master’s and Doctoral degrees, with Yuthavong serving as its director from 1985 to 1991.

Gaining momentum, Yuthavong continued to lobby for a consolidated national research effort, culminating in the passing of the National Science and Technology Development Act and formation of the NSTDA in 1991. As an autonomous organization reporting to the minister of science and technology, the NSTDA determined its own policies under four different mandates: research and development, technology transfer, human resource development and infrastructure development.

“We not only did our own in-house research but also gave out grants to support all aspects of science and technology,” said Yuthavong, who served as the NSTDA’s first president from 1992 to 1998 while continuing to head a research group working on antimalarials at BIOTEC.

In 2004, Yuthavong was awarded the 9th Nikkei Asia Prize for Science, Technology and Innovation for “his outstanding role in the research of the malaria parasite and the development of science and technology research systems in his country,” sharing the stage with fellow 2004 Nikkei Asia Prize winner Professor Muhmmad Yunnus who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize two years later.

A regional perspective

For Yuthavong, 2006 saw his appointment as minister of science and technology, taking on the additional responsibility of representing Thailand at international meetings. Shifting gears again from a national to a regional perspective, he sought to help Thailand progress from an agricultural-based economy into an industrial and digital one.

“I think Thailand can be a very good example of an advanced developing country and make the transition into a high income society. Aside from examples such as Singapore and South Korea, there are very few Asian countries that have made that transition successfully,” he said.

“Our roots are in agriculture and we have established a strong food industry. We need to move on from primary products and link them up with materials technology. If we succeed, it would serve as an example for other countries in Asia such as India and Bangladesh.”

For Thailand to someday become an Asian science leader, however, funding for research in Thailand will probably need to drastically increase. Although the Thai government has set the target of one percent of the GDP for R&D spending, levels have hovered at only 0.25 percent.

These numbers pale in comparison with South Korea and Japan, which spend between three to four percent of their GDP on R&D, and Singapore and China, which spend approximately two percent. On the bright side, Yuthavong expects that Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plan for economic integration to have a significant impact on science in Thailand.

“I’m looking forward not just to the economic integration but also the social and cultural integration that will follow. This will facilitate the exchange of people so that it almost becomes an ASEAN without borders. The movement of educational and research expertise would certainly help in pushing ASEAN forward,” Yuthavong quipped.

More PhDs in politics, please

One important way to help the public understand the need for scientific research would be to have more scientists involved in public affairs, according to Yuthavong, who was the immediate past president of the Thai Academy of Science and Technology.

“I think it’s really important that more scientists get involved in the public sphere. Certainly not all scientists need to do this; many of them would do a better job working on technical issues. While all scientists should consider using their research to work on issues of public importance, a small percentage—say five or ten percent—could change their careers and become practicing public affairs people or politicians.

“In fact, I would argue that you need more scientists to get involved in politics in developing countries. The better education systems of developed countries should ensure that their leaders have a better understanding of science,” he opined.

This belief in the positive impact a scientist can make in the political sphere is best embodied in his own life, through his term as minister of science and technology and now as deputy prime minister.

“I would like to be remembered as a gentle scientist who tried to bring science to the people for their benefit. As lofty as this sounds, it’s an ideal that I have worked towards my whole life, inspired by my uncle, the late Dr. Puey Ungphakorn.

“He was the former governor of the Bank of Thailand as well as the rector of Thammasat University in a period that helped to bring democracy to Thailand. Just as he showed me how to live life for the benefit of society as a whole,I’d like to be remembered as Dr. Puey’s nephew—a scientist who thinks of society.”

This article was first published in the print version of Asian Scientist Magazine, July 2015.

Photo: Yongyuth Yuthavong.

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Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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