Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Cheng He

Recognizing the importance of microRNA as a key biomarker in several diseases, Professor Cheng He hopes to address critical challenges in the development of early disease diagnostic tools at MiRXES.

Cheng He
Vice President for Research and Development

AsianScientist (Jul. 13, 2022) – In 2003, when the human genome project was completed with the sequencing of a whopping 3.2 billion base pairs, about 24 percent of the sequence was believed to be unimportant. Scientists called it junk DNA. Today, this perspective is shifting, and fast.

Enter: microRNA (miRNA). Over the years, miRNA has been discovered to regulate up to a third of human genes. These micromanagers are packed with macro-level power in downregulating cancer cell expression. miRNA either acts as oncogenes to prevent cancer cell overexpression or tumour suppressors to prevent malignant tumours formation. Research also shows that miRNA is a ubiquitous biomarker, indicating presence and intensity of multiple diseases.

This small molecule has paved the way for a new era of molecular biology. With many countries shifting their focus onto preventive care, including Singapore, Dr. Cheng He recognizes the importance of developing novel diagnostics.

Originally trained in material sciences, Professor Cheng He realized that successful early diagnostic tools required stronger biological indicators to provide accurate identification.

Currently the Vice President in the Research & Development unit of MiRXES, a biotechnology company focused on the development of RNA-based preventive disease diagnostics, Cheng shared his insights on the future of preventive diagnostics in this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine.

  1. Before joining MiRXES, you were a research scientist at A*STAR. What was it like making the leap from the laboratory to an industrial and leadership role?
  2. Every company is unique, so one’s experience depends a lot on the company they join. I believe in MiRXES’ purpose which is to save and improve lives through early diagnosis. Working in MiRXES has injected a strong sense of empowerment in my research. After all, we can translate our research discoveries into actual products that many people can use in real life. Since R&D is in every stage of the product life cycle, to bring a product into the marketplace always gives me a sense of fruition and accomplishment. At the same time, I feel the ownership and responsibility for both good and bad aspects of the product.

    As a team lead, I see the success of our vision as a collective effort. I work closely with my colleagues and mentor my team members to help them achieve the best of what they can, so that collectively we collaborate, strive and scale new heights.

  3. How did you first become interested in molecular diagnostics and RNA technologies?
  4. I was trained in material sciences, and I have always tried to develop tools with nanotechnology for better disease identification. RNA is a unique class of molecules. It carries post transcriptional information and its sequence information can be more easily read compared to protein. RNA is also secreted and circulated in the bloodstream. All of these make RNA an ideal type of molecule to work with for novel diagnostics.

  5. Looking back over the last year, is there an achievement you are most proud of?
  6. MiRXES has been working on a large-scale study to use circulating miRNA for pulmonary disease diagnosis for several years with our collaborator. But last year was really when the research transited from exploratory to clinical, and our research discoveries were prototyped and productized.

    We faced many challenges to unravel the role of miRNA pulmonary hypertension and the team worked day and night to solve these mysteries. We have had great collaboration with our partners across the globe. Most amazingly, our team and collaborator were able to beat a very tight timeline in the entire development process in face of COVID-19. I’m really proud of the team’s optimism, agility and dedication.

  7. What are some of the challenges in developing and implementing diagnostic technologies at scale in Asia?
  8. Many innovations in diagnostics and therapeutics originated in the U.S. and Europe. The technology may still be sound when you transplant them into Asian context, but the scalability of the solution and product positioning may change dramatically due to different clinical practices and social economical norms.

    For innovative diagnostic test in Asia, we need to understand in local context what people need. The diversity of Asian countries certainly creates initial entry barriers to markets but it may also be an opportunity for companies who can adapt.

    The synergistic collaboration between therapeutics development and diagnostic development in Asia needs to be encouraged, with more efforts in ecosystem building. To create a truly preventive health care system, we need to achieve harmony in a multi-stakeholder ecosystem that involves academics, clinicians, policy makers, insurance payers and most importantly, the general public.

    MiRXES believes that prevention is better than cure, and we are working towards becoming the platform where the entire ecosystem can work together and grow towards achieving a truly preventive health care system.

  9. What are some of the big problems in your field that you are trying to solve?
  10. I work mainly on circulating cell-free nucleic acid for early disease detection. Biologically this poses interesting challenges. For example, how do you pick up minute amount of material released by early disease? and how do you minimize the interference from a large biological background? All of these must be achieved with solutions that are affordable and practical.

    To address these challenges, machine learning and AI are frequently used in developing novel diagnostics so we can incorporate a multitude of information to detect diseases early.

    Yet these tools pose additional layers of complexity, and they could be easily skewed from the most unexpected sources of confounders. AI based novel diagnostics must be robust enough and proven through rounds of verification and validation.

  11. Can you share any innovations in the pipeline that can help address these problems?
  12. Innovations must happen from biochemistry to instrumentation to clinical study design to address these problems. For example, to better separate signal of early diseases from noise, we have developed a technology to interrogate different components in blood. Biological signals may be more concentrated in certain components compared to others. We also researched deeply into the dynamics of these molecules in biofluid, from secretion to degradation, to better preserve these early disease markers.

    To construct more reliable AI, we are also using multiple types of analytes, which reflect disease related biological changes from different perspectives. By modelling these analytes together, we add more robustness to the biological signals. We are also working on ways to engineer data differently, so they are more robust in catching variations and biases. Importantly, we have broadened the sources of our training data to include clinical centres not only in Singapore, but also overseas.

    We are beginning to enrol into one of the largest multiple cancer early detection clinical studies in Asia which will include different ethnicities, age groups, lifestyles, and risk factors so the AI we build will be able to withstand the variations in these aspects.

    Ultimately, the aim of the innovations is to enable MiRXES to deliver early, actionable and personalized diagnoses, as well as accurate and accessible preventive healthcare solutions across the care continuum to save and improve lives.

  13. Do you have any advice for aspiring biotech scientists in Asia?
  14. Keep your focus on the translation of science into actual products—it’s an exciting journey!

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: MiRXES.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Grace Poh is pursuing Life Sciences at the National University of Singapore. She strongly believes that science is not finished until it is communicated. When she is not stringing words together, she rediscovers herself through volunteering.

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