Sunday August 5, 2012
By MENG YEW CHOONG
UiTM aims to make its mark on translational medicine.
THE folks at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) are a rather driven bunch. After its Pharmacogenomics Centre (better known as Promise) at its Puncak Alam campus in Selangor recently successfully completed the sequencing of the Malay genome, it is now harbouring ambitions to be the country’s leading centre for studies in translational medicine.
This was revealed by its deputy dean for industrial linkages and clinical development, Prof Datuk Dr Aminuddin Ahmad, who revealed that the university is now embarking on the path towards translational medicine, also known as the “bench-to-bedside” approach, by collaborating with the Spain-based Klentze Institut.
“We began our collaboration in November 2011, but I already knew the founder, Prof Michael Klentze, for quite a few years already,” said Prof Aminuddin, who is also a senior consultant physician specialising in gastroenterology.
Prof Klentze, 65, is the president and chief medical scientific officer at Klentze Institut, and was previously the international medical director at the Bumrungrad International Hospital’s Vitallife Wellness Centre in Bangkok, Thailand.
UiTM’s endeavour is in line with the nation’s aim of speeding up the pace of converting scientific findings into useful applications in the marketplace.
Last December, Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin revealed that UiTM is working with BiotechCorp to form the BioNexus Partners network to spur work in developing personalised medicine, which is part of the move to create value-added biotechnology and pharmaceutical research.
The RM150,000 project to map the Malay genome was fully funded by UiTM, using equipment and technology provided by BiotechCorp.
There is new evidence to show that genes play a significant role in determining one’s risk to certain diseases, and how they would respond to different types of medicine. Hence, it is not surprising that a lot of research is being carried out in developed nations to explore how to leverage on genetic knowledge to develop suitable health strategies for local populations.
The clinical introduction of such new methods in developed countries is fairly widespread now. For example, gene testing is already well defined in the United States.
Prof Aminuddin feels that UiTM’s Faculty of Medicine is now ready to take the leap into areas involving preventive, regenerative, anti-aging and personalised medicine. UiTM is well positioned to enter the fray as it already has a state-of-the-art lab at Puncak Alam. Its medical faculty is eight years old, and has distinguished itself by offering fields of specialisation such as adolescent medicine, as well as ethics and medical jurisprudence.
“The equipment and trained manpower is already there, and there is a lot that the lab can do. It is just that the scientists (not doctors) are focused on their various research areas, and the results tend to be of pure academic value, without specific applications in the clinical world,” he said.
It is in the interpretation of the results that will prove to be the major challenge. “This is where we need to bring in the expertise, and this is where Dr Klentze can come in. As we don’t have enough local experts yet in the area, we might have to assemble this team from locals and as well as foreigners.
“Other than molecular biologists, and we also need doctors who are able to interpret the results, and to use them in their clinical practice.”
The biomedical research workforce development requires new approaches because today’s increasingly complex scientific and technically sophisticated knowledge base demands a succesful integration between the fields of bioinformatics, statistics, genomics, nanotechnology and regenerative biology.
“Dr Klentze is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, with additional interest in psychiatry and endocrinology. He understands the relevance of all molecular testing in clinical practice, and he is a good person to impart these knowledge to us. He is the link,” said Prof Aminuddin.
According to Prof Klentze, nearly 350,000 people die each year because of unsuitable prescriptions, which means the drugs don’t get metabolised in the system, and as a result, accumulate to toxic levels within the body.
“In Germany, it is estimated that 60,000 patients die each year as a result of this,” he told Fit4Life during an interview when he visited UiTM’s Selayang campus recently to conduct courses on research methodology on genomics and medicine.
Prof Klentze feels strongly that women who undergo hormone replacement therapy should undergo genetic testing before they start the course.
Other than saving lives, genetic testing will help reduce the wastage in prescriptions. “For example, some studies show that certain individuals consuming fish oil with omega-3 in it might come out worse after taking it, while some came out with a better outcome. So, we need to distinguish between those who will benefit from this supplement, so that it isn’t wasted. If I cannot metabolise the substance, then what is the point of taking it?”
According to Prof Aminuddin, doctors usually take the traditional pharmaceutical approach. “If the doctor is interested in more holistic prescriptions, he himself must learn them first.”
On a lighter note, he added that endeavours towards multidisciplinary enquiries are usually personality driven, with some element of personal challenge involved.
“It is about research that makes you go beyond your normal field(s) of discipline. I am a gastroenterologist, and what made me take an interest in anti-aging is that fact that I myself am aging, and the gut is the biggest endocrine organ,” said the 54-year-old.
In Prof Aminuddin’s opinion, mainstream medicine has not been too successful in some areas. “For example, cardiovascular diseases keep increasing, diabetes is on the rise, and obesity is now an epidemic.
“Perhaps, there could be a different way to approach these problems. We may have to start from the doctors, to public health policies, right down to our medical students. Things like how they perceive diseases, the role of nutrition, and so on.
“What we emphasise in medical schools will be reflected in their practice. Let’s say, if we do not focus on nutrition, exercise, stress management, meditation as a form of treatment, then the students will focus solely on the role of pharmaceuticals as treatment.”
According to Prof Aminuddin, some of the possible areas of reseach at UiTM can include the analysis of genetic polymorphisms among its patients. “We can start by focusing on certain genes, analyse certain difficult cases. In the initial stages, it will be a reseach collaboration, before moving on to offer services such as genetic counselling and advice to the public.”
Prof Klentze is equally upbeat about the collaboration. “Some of the work that can be done in Europe could hopefully be done here. We are happy to have a strong university in Asia as a partner, and it provides more opportunities to learn from each other.”