CEO and Medical Director
AsianScientist (Jan. 30, 2018) – Like a detective sleuthing around for clues at a crime scene, clinician scientist Dr. Tan Min Han analyzes the blood samples of his patients, seeking out traces of a criminal that’s responsible for an estimated one in six deaths around the world—cancer. Tan is looking for DNA fragments shed by tumors into the bloodstream, and his diagnostic method is known as a liquid biopsy. Instead of surgically removing tissue from a patient to assess whether it is cancerous, all Tan needs to do is draw blood.
Tan’s passion to improve lives through early cancer detection spurred him to found Lucence Diagnostics, a biotechnology company that develops liquid biopsy-based diagnostic tests. Some of these tests are already being used at clinics in Singapore and the region. Pitching his vision to the judges at the SLINGSHOT@SWITCH competition, Tan edged out more than 900 contestants to take home the prize for Best Idea, as well as S$100,000 to boost his research and development efforts.
In this interview for Asia’s Rising Scientists, Tan shares what inspired him to become a clinician scientist and talks about his ambitions for the future.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?
Delivering better cancer screening, diagnosis and monitoring through relentless innovation in liquid biopsy technology.
- Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.
I am excited to have achieved a breakthrough in the field of liquid biopsy by discovering the circulating tumor-endothelial cell cluster in the blood of cancer patients, which overturned a widely held notion among the cancer research community.
Over five decades ago, Harvard pathologists reported clumps of cells floating in the blood of cancer patients and reported that these were cancerous, setting the stage for a misplaced assumption over the next fifty years. Research programs and technology over decades were based on these assumptions.
We spent four painstaking years demonstrating that these cell clusters originated from the supporting blood vessels instead of from the cancer. As an analogy, an army is not just made up of front-line troops (cancer cells), it is also supported by medical and logistics teams (the supporting blood vessels). The implication is that we now can non-invasively measure the blood perfusion status of a cancer and investigate outcomes of anti-blood vessel cancer treatment.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
We believe that our research will culminate in technology that can successfully detect cancer at earlier stages, and that the work will be able to meaningfully reduce the burden of suffering in this world. We’re making good progress, with liquid biopsy assays for several cancer types, including lung, colon and nasopharyngeal cancer.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
Over nearly twenty years of service as a physician, I understand intimately that a diagnosis of cancer changes everything for people and their families. What drives me is recognizing that the suffering of late stage patients can be prevented through the timely detection of early-stage cancers. We are very proud that our work is already saving lives, and we will continue to roll out our pipeline of advanced next-generation cancer screening tests in clinics here and in the region.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
Early in my scientific career, a colleague inadvertently left the freezer ajar at night, and my painstakingly collected frozen tissue samples thawed. It was extremely painful to lose six months of work, and this still occasionally wakes me up at night! But of course, iterating in the face of failure is the raison d’être of research.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
The academic research community achieves wonderful things for the world, and answers great questions. Much of our work also builds on previous discoveries, and great debts are owed to the scientists labouring away to probe the nature of reality.
As someone who bridges academia and industry, I have an intimate awareness of the Valley of Death where academic successes fail to translate into viable stuff to change the world. The root causes are complex, but my view is that this really needs a mindset change among scientists and policymakers to incentivize more robust and reproducible basic research over splashier stories.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
If I had not been a physician-scientist, I would probably have chosen to work for Doctors Without Borders to deliver emergency humanitarian aid to places needing it. It is still my favorite charity, helping people fearlessly in all circumstances around the world. Solving problems and reducing suffering, whether through science or through medicine, can give our lives meaning and a mission.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I relax through music and enjoy spending time with family. Simple activities such as reading an apparently endless chapter of Pippi Longstockings to my daughter bring me joy.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
Without a doubt, I would choose to eliminate cancer. It strikes people in both developing and developed countries, and the burden of suffering on patients and caregivers is huge.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Asia is a very exciting place to be doing work in! There are huge and interesting problems around us, both in academia and in industry. Of course, solving these problems is demanding in faith, commitment and resources. For those scientists and physicians who stay the course, the rewards can be very significant.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Tan Min-Han.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.