Profile: Associate Professor Yusuf Ali: Paving the way for new strategic partnerships

Can you imagine an insulin that diabetic patients can eat instead of injecting into their bodies? This was the question that drove LKCMedicine’s Associate Professor Yusuf Ali and his collaborators to study oral insulin nanoparticles.

A/Prof Yusuf Ali, who was recently appointed as Assistant Dean for External Affairs, talks to The LKCMedicine about this research that will potentially open the door for promising therapies and his plans for enhancing the School’s partnerships.

Q: What are some of the goals that you hope to achieve as Assistant Dean for External Affairs?

In this role, I will support the development of the School’s strategic and longer term partnerships by building synergies with partners and pursuing new partnerships that are aligned with LKCMedicine’s goals.

I will also look into enhancing our reputation among regional and international institutes, as well as the schools and colleges in NTU. This includes strengthening engagements with local and international healthcare and scientific communities.

Q: You mentioned in a previous interview that a conducive environment and space for creativity to do the best research was one of your reasons for joining the School. How has this helped to further your research?

The School has been, and continues to be, supportive of our work and this promotes a collaborative research mindset. This has percolated down and enhanced our interactions with friends in the National Healthcare Group, and with cross-disciplinary colleagues from the NTU College of Engineering and College of Science. I have managed to build a network of friends such that if there are specific experiments to be done outside the scope of my lab, I can just pick up the phone and send the samples across. And this relationship goes both ways. In this day and age, it is not quite possible to do everything on your own. There are important studies that I lead, and some others that I am a part of. This all boils down to the support given by past and present research management.

Q: A study that you co-authored on oral insulin nanoparticles was published in Nanoscale last November. What drew you to this research area and what keeps you going?

Finding a new way to deliver insulin to diabetics is a complex challenge. To address this, we had to approach colleagues from NTU’s School of Materials Science and Engineering. While my research centers on maintaining the endogenous supply of insulin, exogenous insulin as a treatment has been around for 50 years. However, the subcutaneous jab administration route is quite different from that of naturally secreted insulin. We hope to correct this with oral insulin. Beyond insulin, the technological advance of delivering proteinaceous macromolecules orally will open the door for many promising therapies on a plethora of disorders, for example, fatty liver disease. 

Q: Since joining LKCMedicine, you have been strengthening the international network of endocrinologists and working with interdisciplinary teams. In your opinion, has COVID-19 spurred on or hampered research collaborations?  

Web-based calls and videoconferencing have mitigated some of the negative impact on research collaborations. One of the more positive aspects is that more researchers can now attend seminars and conferences because they are held online. This widens the reach of our research work and fosters collaborations. However, simply being online cannot replace some important aspects of face-to-face meetings such as those that take place in laboratories and corridors. Looking into another person’s eyes, understanding their body language, brainstorming new ideas, troubleshooting problems together, having each other’s complete attention – these are just not possible unless you are physically together. Nonetheless, COVID-19 has taught us that for us to be resilient, we will need to keep adjusting towards a new normal. 

Q: You teach both the MBBS and PhD students. What advice would you give to students who are interested in getting involved in medical research?

It actually starts with just sending us, the faculty and staff, an email to express your interest.

I have noticed that the interest in wet lab research amongst our MBBS students has increased from year to year. Currently, I have two M2 students in the lab and they are enthusiastically working on cutting edge beta-cell research. Many more have expressed interest and this trajectory is really encouraging.

Q: After a long day at work, what are some of the things you like to do to relax and unwind?

I run, jog, walk depending on my mood. I love nature and the outdoors so I try to get out a lot. I draw a lot of inspiration from flora and fauna, and I am particularly fond of the crisp air and morning dew. I have also started cycling although that is currently restricted to the park connectors around my neighbourhood.