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Fighting cancer
A good scientist must be grounded and faithful. In this monthly column, APBN speaks to two scientists from Ark, Dr Zhou Lihan and Dr Zou Ruiyang to understand their motivation in finding solutions to beat cancer.

I became a scientist because...

Dr Zhou: My grandfather was a military physician during the Korean war. As such, I spent a significant portion of my childhood in the hospital with nurses and physicians, leading to my fascination with biology and medicine. My pursuit of knowledge related to the building blocks of life led me to an undergraduate degree in life sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and subsequently a doctoral degree in biochemistry at the NUS medical school.

Dr Zou: Growing up, I was always curious about how this world works and why everything exists the way they do. Becoming a scientist was always the path I wanted to pursue as it gives me the opportunities to explore these interests.

I choose to work in oncology because...

Dr Zhou: I want to be at the forefront of eliminating late-stage cancer by giving people access to a novel way of early cancer detection and prevention. Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, claiming an estimated 9.6 million people in 2018. The survival rate of cancer patients remains poor, especially in developing countries, mainly because most of these cancers are discovered at a later stage. I have had immediate family members who passed away due to the late discovery of cancer. Therefore, it truly excites me when I learned that our research on microRNAs (miRNAs) could yield a novel, non-invasive biomarker that is capable of detecting cancers in their early stage. As our research progressed, my belief has only grown stronger that this is the field that I would like to dedicate my career to.

Dr Zou: I wanted to apply our miRNA detection technology developed in the lab to the real-life clinical challenge of early cancer detection. At Ark, we believe that the best way of improving cancer care and management is to detect the disease in the early stages rather than treating them at the later phases. Circulating genetic materials, like miRNAs in the blood, provide vital information about a person’s health and can indicate whether there are tumour cells present in the body. I focus on analysing the data obtained from measuring hundreds of different microRNAs in thousands of clinical samples so that this information can be used in the clinic to correctly identify patients with cancer.

A typical day in the lab...

Dr Zhou: Starts with a good cup of coffee. It calms me down and allows me to focus on how the day’s work can contribute to our long-term goal. The rest of the day is filled with wet-lab experiments, quiet moments of analysis and lively debates. The day can be hectic and fascinating at the same time as we can almost never second guess what the results may be. But that’s the beauty of research. One always learns something new.

Dr Zou: Most of the time, a day is filled with discussions about projects, the questions to ask, experiment designs and the results. Through those discussions, we exchange thoughts, learn from each other and inspire new ideas.

Our lab is currently working on…

Dr Zhou: Ark is developing blood-based cancer detection assays based on our proprietary miRNA technologies. Our first product is a gastric cancer blood test and we have in the pipeline similar blood tests for lung, breast, and colon cancers. We are initiating Asia’s largest miRNA clinical study targeting at least 50,000 participants through partnerships with local governments and medical institutions.

Dr Zou: We are continually improving the cancer detection accuracy of our miRNA-based blood test products using our growing clinical miRNA expression database. We are also innovating new ways of integrating clinical data with our core miRNA technology to advance Ark's mission of creating an affordable, non-invasive and accurate method for whole population cancer screening.

Outside of the lab, I am also involved in…

Dr Zhou: As Ark progresses towards commercialisation, many of us now spend more time outside the lab than inside the lab. In a startup, we have to constantly switch between wearing the hats of scientist, engineer, HR, sales and other roles. Personally, I now spend a lot of time understanding the market and customer requirements, as well as scouting for new talents who share the same passion to join the team.

Dr Zou: My focus is to bring our technology to the next level and to market. Outside of the lab, I spend time learning about scientific advances and commercial happenings in the healthcare industries.

The biggest challenge in my job is…

Dr Zhou: Time is the biggest challenge in translational research. Lives are lost every minute due to late cancer discovery. The team is sprinting to discover new biomarkers, develop assays and complete clinical studies so that our research can help in the fight against cancer.

Dr Zou: Staying objective in order to make quick and accurate decisions. A scientist must be grounded and remain faithful to what one is doing especially when one is unsure about what is correct or wrong. It is often easy to get confused when trying to achieve this balance. In our field, the discovery of new actionable insights is often hampered by the limited amount of quality data and the lack of sufficiently developed analytical models for managing large volumes of dynamic data. By focusing on the goal of maximising the accuracy of our cancer detection assays, we have been able to constantly innovate novel analytical tools to overcome the limitations inherent in existing data, rather than be distracted or daunted by technical issues.

The biggest misconception about scientists is probably…

Dr Zhou: Scientists are not as detached from reality as many may believe. A good scientist is very conscious of the unmet needs in society so that he or she can develop solutions to solve real-life problems.

Dr Zou: The notion that scientists can somehow come up with brilliant ideas when they are sunbathing on the beach. In reality, most great ideas do not suddenly crystallise in a scientist's mind out of nowhere, but through days and nights of hard work, lots of failed ideas and eventually some luck which brings success. You have to try hard enough and try smart so as to have better odds of finding the right solution. Trial-and-error is still the key to innovation.

In my free time…

Dr Zhou: I enjoy travelling and hosting people. Being a scientist allows you to travel the world to attend conferences, meet and work with fellow scientists from every possible corner of the world that share the same passion in research and translation.

Dr Zou: I like sports, including basketball, swimming and boxing.

A book I will recommend everybody to read is…

Dr Zhou: Principles by Ray Dalio. It teaches us unconventional principles about life and work in plain and moving language.

Dr Zou: Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This book helps us understand how the human brain works on a daily basis and helps us to manage our thinking and innovation process.

I enjoy my job because…

Dr Zhou: It has the potential to detect cancer at early and asymptomatic stages when the disease can be cured.

Dr Zou: I can use my experience, effort and intelligence to understand the science behind our product, improving it so it has the potential to help people. This truly makes my life more meaningful.

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