By Kimberley Wang, Manager, Media and Publications, Communications and Outreach
Our young medical school is punching above its weight. Since it was established in 2010, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine (LKCMedicine) has been inviting thought leaders in science and medicine to our shores to share their expertise with our healthcare and scientific communities.
Bringing world leaders in science to Singapore
Early this month, LKCMedicine hosted Nobel laureate Professor Barry Marshall who spent a week engaging the School’s community and its partners.
The visit was funded by the LKCMedicine 10th Anniversary (2020) Distinguished Visitor programme, which was established in 2020 with a gift by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. With matching by the Singapore government, the S$1 million Distinguished Visitor programme invites Nobel and Lasker laureates and other renowned scientists to engage with the local research community and address thought-provoking issues in medicine. Two Distinguished Visitors will be nominated each year to interact, network, and share their expertise with the university’s faculty, students, and the wider community.
The introduction of the programme marks the School’s first decade and transformation into one of the top 100 medical schools in the world, according to the QS World University Rankings.
Also launched under this programme is the twice yearly James Best Distinguished Lecture Series, named after the former LKCMedicine Dean to honour his efforts in steering the medical school to international acclaim during his seven-year term from 2014 to 2021.
LKCMedicine Dean Professor Joseph Sung, who is also NTU Senior Vice-President (Health & Life Sciences), said, “Through research collaborations and public lectures, these prominent professors from distinguished overseas institutions will share their knowledge with the School, our partners and friends. They will also serve as role models and mentors to our younger faculty on their research journey.
“I am confident that our students and faculty will tap on the expertise of these internationally renowned professors to explore the boundaries of medical science and work towards new breakthroughs and solutions in medicine and healthcare for our population and beyond.”
Indeed, the sessions have been inspiring. For Prof Marshall’s lecture held on 4 August, which was attended by 200 online and onsite guests, he chose to focus his distinguished lecture on “Life Lessons from a Biotech Entrepreneur”.
Nobel laureate Professor Barry Marshall delivering his lecture
For this lecture, he spoke about the concept of entrepreneurship and the timeline of an entrepreneur. He shared his advice for young people, “You don’t have to have the same pressure [as we used to]. Be a bit patient, do things a bit better and expect to get a long-term return.”
Prof Marshall shared how he started off as a young investigator presenting a poster at a meeting. It was there that a chance encounter through someone he knew led him to work with Proctor and Gamble.
He went on to share the difficulties that he faced including how his first attempt at publication in 1983 was rejected. It was then that he realised that there were many causes of ulcers which were already known but these were false and an illusion of knowledge.
In 1984, when he was unable to find a suitable animal model, he experimented on himself and drank the H. pylori bacteria. This was followed by placebo controlled double-blind studies where he was able to prove that H. pylori infections caused peptic ulcers.
Drawing from his experience as a biotech entrepreneur, Prof Marshall shared the lessons that he learnt.
Pointing out that everyone is the same, he said, “What works in your hometown will work anywhere. You don’t have to be in the middle of Beijing or New York City to make an innovation a useful innovation. If it works in your hometown, it is probably good enough and you can roll it out.”
He also spoke humorously about dealing with failures and how the people who reviewed his funding applications were failed biotech entrepreneurs. “If your biotech fails… don’t worry, there are jobs out there and you’ll be a great one to work for a VC fund because you are very cynical about all these entrepreneurs,” he added with a laugh.
On relationships with investors, he said, “As an entrepreneur, you got to develop relationships with investors. Don’t just focus on the end point, enjoy the ride. Make a sustainable work ethic or you will burn out. My experience is: three years on a project… it might go to five [years] but at that point, it should have already paid off.”
He added, “A scientist entrepreneur never finishes the product. At some point, the entrepreneur needs to leave or the product will never go out. Make sure you enjoy the journey.”
At the same time, he talked about the values of honesty, loyalty and morality. “The people you deal with might be around for many years, even the length of your career. I would say those people are still going to be sitting next to you so don’t make any enemies. It is not necessary. Just try and make you sure you are ethical, moral and fair,” he said.
LKCMedicine Assistant Dean of Academic Medicine, Associate Professor Sunny Wong chairing the Q&A segment at Prof Marshall’s lecture
The audience, including LKCMedicine Dean Professor Joseph Sung, participating enthusiastically in the Q&A session
To state that Prof Marshall has touched many lives is to say the least. At the same event, Prof Sung also shared a personal story about Prof Marshall’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery. As a young gastroenterologist, he used to attend a clinic that saw 150 new peptic ulcer patients every week. He would see about 50 patients and perform endoscopy on those known to have ulcers. At that time, ulcer disease was a huge medical problem which was treated by drugs.
After reading an article in The Lancet about two professors who discovered the bacteria that causes peptic ulcers, he was very intrigued by the findings. They started to treat the condition with antibiotics and bismuth, which resulted in the patients dropping from 150 to almost zero and the clinic was eventually closed. He light-heartedly added that this was when he became Vice-Chancellor of a university.
Addressing Prof Marshall, he said, “You have saved so many lives. We are greatly honoured that you are here with us to share your adventure in the discovery of Helicobacter pylori.”
LKCMedicine Dean Professor Joseph Sung giving the opening address at Prof Marshall’s lecture
Reiterating Prof Marshall’s contributions to medicine, Prof Best said, “His remarkable discovery, in partnership with pathologist Robin Warren, that Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) causes gastritis and peptic ulcer disease and more importantly, can be treated rapidly and inexpensively with a course of antibiotics. It was a revolutionary discovery, seen as a miracle cure by so many people who suffered in agony for years from peptic ulcer disease. For many more, it prevented major surgery.
“In addition, establishing the causative link between H. pylori and gastric cancer has prevented untold numbers of gastric cancers, which as we know, is a very serious and often fatal disease. In 2005, Barry was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with pathologist Professor Robin Warren.”
Former LKCMedicine Dean and Visiting Professor James Best reading the citation at Prof Marshall’s lecture
Prof Best who himself delivered the first lecture of the series on 19 March this year, has high ambitions for the programme. His own lecture was on “Preserving the art and furthering the science of medicine”. (Read more about the inaugural lecture here.)
Prof Best said, “In the future, I would like to see a variety of people coming to Singapore to speak with our students, our faculty and attracting others from around Singapore. I envisage a range of global scientists, clinicians, global educators, and even engineers, who will inspire our students and faculty. This will bring the world to Singapore. It will also enhance our reputation to bring Singapore to the world.”
Vice-Dean (Research) Professor Lim Kah Leong added, “We have lined up a series of pre-eminent speakers from all over the world and that includes Nobel laureates and many other very distinguished scientists.”
The concept of a lecture series named after Prof Best was mooted as early as November 2020. Prof Lim recalled that a faculty member wrote to him with a suggestion to find some way of honouring our then-retiring Dean as he had made significant contributions to the School and Singapore.
“The idea of a James Best Lecture Series came to me after some thought, which in my mind would be a fabulous way to pay tribute to LKCMedicine’s first resident Dean who had dedicated seven good years of his life to the School. Of course, the added bonus for this named lecture series is that every one of the lectures would be the ‘Best’ lecture!” said Prof Lim.
The lecture series was unanimously supported by the core leadership team and endorsed by the LKCMedicine Governing Board in May 2021. After receiving the good news, Prof Best replied, “I am deeply honoured by the named lecture series and it will provide an added reason for visiting Singapore in the coming years.”
From left: Prof Sung, Prof Marshall, Prof Best, NTU Board of Trustees Member Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, LKCMedicine Vice-Dean (Research) Professor Lim Kah Leong, LKCMedicine Associate Professor Yusuf Ali and A/Prof Wong
It has been announced that the next speaker in the series is Professor Dame Sally Davies, an internationally renowned academic leader, 40th Master of Trinity College. She is the Chief Medical Officer for England and Chief Medical Advisor to the UK government. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. She was made Dame Commander for services to Medicine in 2009.
Prof Sung said, “The James Best Distinguished Lecture, held twice a year, features eminent professors who are global leaders in their respective fields. Through this platform, LKCMedicine will play a vital role in bringing together thought leaders and industry experts to address thought-provoking issues in medicine, with the perspective of fostering dialogue and advancing discourse in the transformation of medicine, medical education, and research.”
Up close and personal with a Nobel laureate
During his week at the School, Prof Marshall met different groups of students, postdocs and faculty. He was generous with tips and advice, sharing his experiences on the road to his Nobel Prize.
LKCMedicine Assistant Dean (External Affairs) Associate Professor Yusuf Ali, said, “Professor Marshall embodies the spirit of the Nobel Prize and he is everything I thought a Nobel Awardee should be. An inquisitive mind, dogged determination and above all else, kind and generous in his interactions with everyone, from students, to staff to faculty.”
Recalling his conversations with the students and post-docs, he said, “It seemed very easy to engage with the students. They seemed very relaxed and very free, and had a lot of good questions and they liked to hear different anecdotes. They have got quite a great sense of humour, a lot of personality and were very diverse.”
He added, “Everybody had the same fun attitude towards learning and I think I was like that. Everything was interesting and exciting for me. That’s how you want your students to be and that’s how you find discoveries.”
When asked to share a lesser known fact about his Nobel Prize win, Prof Marshall recounted that when he and Prof Warren had their first paper published, Prof Warren’s wife commented that they might win the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Prof Warren then asked Prof Marshall when he thought they might win it, to which he replied, “Probably in about two years.”
“But of course, it was 23 years before we won the Nobel Prize!” he said, good humouredly. “Don’t be too impatient. It’s probably good to wait quite a few years, you’ll probably appreciate it more. And do good research in the meantime.”
The LKCMedicine and wider scientific community had a fruitful time gleaning insights from Prof Marshall and his inspiring lecture. We look forward to hosting Prof Davies and the upcoming James Best Distinguished Lecture Series in February next year!