AsianScientist (Oct. 23, 2020) – The coronavirus pandemic may have taken much of the world by surprise, but such outbreaks are nothing new. From biblical plagues to medieval poxes, infectious diseases have ravaged humanity since time immemorial. Consider the Black Death in the 14th century. Caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague wiped out nearly half of Europe’s population at the time, with a body count of up to 200 million people.
Before its official eradication in 1980, smallpox, caused by the Variola virus, killed around 300 million people in the 20th century alone. Meanwhile, the long-running human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic has infected some 76 million people since the first reported case in 1981. In light of these figures, the current outbreak almost pales in comparison. But with one million deaths and counting, COVID-19 is perhaps the most significant pandemic of the modern era—and it’s unlikely to be the last.
At the frontlines of the age-old battle against disease-causing pathogens are scientists like Professor Lisa Ng, who is a senior principal investigator at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN). Since her days as young biochemistry undergraduate at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, Ng already had a keen interest in infectious diseases. This led her to pursue a PhD in molecular virology at the National University of Singapore, followed by a postdoctoral stint at A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore.
Over the next two decades, Ng has grown to play a pivotal role in Singapore’s scientific response to infectious diseases. Having studied coronaviruses for her doctoral thesis, she was quickly recruited during her postdoctoral years to be part of the A*STAR diagnostic research team during the 2003 SARS epidemic. Along with her colleagues, Ng developed a test that could detect SARS-CoV in patient blood samples. In the following years, she helped create diagnostic assays for bird flu and Zika, on top of establishing biomarkers for chikungunya.
Unsurprisingly, her wealth of experience has proven invaluable in the fight against the latest coronavirus. Last July, Ng and her collaborators published a paper in The Lancet detailing their discovery of a SARS-CoV-2 variant linked to milder COVID-19 outcomes. Interestingly, the variant triggered an immune response in the infected patients without leading to over-inflammation—suggesting the variant’s promise as potential live vaccine.
“I think our study really put Singapore on the map,” shared Ng. “We worked with colleagues from the Ministry of Health, Duke-NUS Medical School and National Centre for Infectious Diseases. It was really a good group effort.”
In another study published in Nature Communications, her team also identified two proteins on SARS-CoV-2’s surface recognized by antibodies from COVID-19 patients. According to Ng, these proteins could be used to design assays that determine the true extent of coronavirus infection in populations. In clinical trials, they could help assess the immune response generated by various vaccine candidates. Incredibly, much of the study was performed during Singapore’s circuit breaker period.
“We had to jump through multiple hurdles just to do one experiment,” Ng revealed. “Working with SARS-CoV-2 was a challenge in itself, since it’s very dangerous. The team had to be trained in biocontainment and pass numerous regulatory requirements to start work. In line with safe distancing practices, we also had to split the workforce.”
Despite the “never ending challenges,” Ng acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has already taught her many lessons that will surely serve her beyond the laboratory and in future outbreaks to come.
“You can see that human nature is very resilient. I didn’t give up and neither did my team,” she shared. “So don’t be afraid to try and step out of your comfort zone.”
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.