Profile: Up close with Associate Professor Sunny Wong

Microbiome science is changing the medical world as scientists uncover how microorganisms in our body can affect our health.

Driving LKCMedicine’s Microbiome Medicine research theme is Dr Sunny Wong, who joined the School as Associate Professor of Nutrition, Digestion and Metabolism in August. He shares his aspirations on how LKCMedicine’s Microbiome research will be generating impact to our society and the world.

Q: What attracted you to scientific research, and how did you first get started in this field?

I did medicine in my undergraduate study. I am grateful to my professors and mentors, who have inspired me in my academic pursuit. While much of clinical practice is about applying what you know to help patients, which is meaningful in itself, biomedical research is about exploring the unknown and creating new knowledge to help potentially even more patients. It is exciting, like a venture into an unknown land, and at the same time fulfilling when you make a new discovery.

I started research in a summer elective attachment during my first year as a medical student. It was an enlightening moment. After many years of learning in school, I had the first experience of creating new knowledge (albeit rather little) instead of learning what was already there. It was fun and I just loved it right away. 

Q: You are leading Microbiome Medicine, one of the cross-cutting themes for LKCMedicine’s research. Could you outline some of your plans for the theme? 

Scientists have known about the microbiome for some time; but only with recent advancements in sequencing technology and bioinformatics, we have come to know far more about it in the past few years. Comprising of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea, the microbiome encompasses a multifarious and complex ecology inside each of us. There has been a surge in what we understand of its natural history, composition, and roles in health and diseases. 

There are a few major pillars in the Microbiome Medicine research theme. The first part is the Science. While many studies have depicted the microbiome landscape in disease conditions, we need to move from descriptive associations into deep mechanistic science. We need to understand the biology of how these microbes live in our ecosystem, interact with the human host, and cause some of the conditions and diseases.

The second part is the Translation. We are a medical school that aims to be a model for transformative research. To make an impact on our patients, we need to translate these scientific discoveries into clinical applications, such as biomarkers for disease screening and diagnosis, or novel therapeutic for preventing or treating diseases.  

The last part is the Implementation. We need to get our innovations into the real world, through developing downstream products, devising health policies or engaging clinical and industrial partners. Intersecting with many different disciplines as a cross-cutting theme, I envision these three parts as important propellants to generate impact to our society and the world.

Q: Your main research interest is to understand the host-microbe relationship, especially gut microbiota in various diseases. Why is microbiome research important and how is it changing medicine?

Microbiome science is changing the entire medical world. Our microbiome is made up of a complex ecology of trillions of microbes. They do not just live inside us, but actively interact with our body to affect our digestion, metabolism, immunity and even our brain.  

It is like a new organ, previously unexplored, but now emerges to connect to our whole body. Importantly, many studies have identified its relationship to various diseases, such as obesity, diabetes mellitus, atherosclerosis, inflammatory bowel diseases, colorectal cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and many others. This represents a treasure trove for medicine, as we can identify new biomarkers and therapeutic approaches to manage diseases through modulating these microbes.

I think we are right at a critical moment, as we have learnt so much more about microbiome science and will see revolutionary research to translate these into medicine. It is an exciting time as we will witness many transformative changes in the coming decade.

Q: How will it help to address Singapore’s healthcare challenges of tomorrow, including caring for its rapidly ageing population? 

Microbiome medicine will be relevant and can potentially hold a key to healthy ageing. As mentioned, the microbiome is closely related to nutritional, metabolic, and neurological health – three important aspects of an elderly person. Therefore, there is much potential to modify the microbiome to enhance nutrient absorption, energy harvest, cardiometabolic health, bone metabolism, muscle strength and cognitive ability of the elderly population that will ultimately lead to healthy ageing.   

Q: As a clinician-scientist, you have been doing research on microbiome, nutrition and digestive diseases. What are some of the research projects that you are currently working on?

As a gastroenterologist and microbiome scientist, I have studied the role of gut microbiome in digestive diseases, including gastric cancer, colorectal cancer and Clostridioides difficile infection.

Using metagenomic sequencing, we were among the first to describe the colorectal cancer microbiome in Asians and have identified several microbial markers that could aid detection of colorectal neoplasms. Building upon these works, we are conducting studies to investigate the role of gut microbiome in mediating some of the cancer risk factors, such as obesity, diabetes mellitus and excessive red meat intake.  

Another major direction of my research is to investigate ways to modify the gut microbiome, including faecal microbiota transplant (FMT), probiotics, and novel chemical approaches. With our highly-valued gnotobiotic facility at LKCMedicine and collaborations with our clinical partners, engineers and bioinformaticians, we are set for high-quality research that will generate excellent science and transform future medicine.

Q: It has been two months since you joined LKCMedicine. How has your experience been so far?

LKCMedicine is a young medical school with energetic people and a vibrant, pulsating atmosphere. This summarises my first impression, as I saw fresh-faced, spirited, and youthful students at LKCMedicine who will soon become our future doctors. Indeed, I myself felt much younger after joining the School. Do say “hi!” if you see me or if you are interested in microbiome!