Dr Chan Yoke Fun on working towards eradicating hand, food and mouth disease
Biomedical scientist Dr Chan Yoke Fun aims to put Malaysia on the map with her contributing research towards eradicating the hand, foot and mouth disease in children.
The world population has doubled to 7 billion this year (half the number from 1970) and it is expected to rise to 9.5 billion by 2060. There is no doubt that scientific research has played an important role in this evolution, which is why the role of a scientist is deemed vital to mankind.
In today’s modern world, scientists are not just limited to men, and the number of women in this field is steadily increasing with the support of a few altruistic organisations and companies. In partnership with Unesco, L’Oréal Foundation’s For Women in Science programme provides support for women researchers all over the world at different points in their careers.
A University Malaya scientist, wife and mother, Dr Chan Yoke Fun was among the three Malaysian women selected as a national fellow for the L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science National Fellowship Program.
This programme caters to Malaysian women researchers under the age of 40, who are PhD holders or are currently pursuing their research study in the field of Life or Material Sciences. For her research work on the Enterovirus A71, Chan was also honoured as one of the 15 For Women in Science International Rising Talents this year.
Her passion for science developed when she pursued her undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences and began developing a diagnostic test for a blood disorder termed thalassemia.
“It was fun learning how to add new reagents into the test to make it better. Soon, I realised I was good at it and that I liked the job. That is where my journey as a scientist began.”
She also confesses that her love for the discipline is due to the fact that it enables her to think outside of the box.
“I can ask questions and systematically test out the answers. When my idea is correct, I shout out joyfully. If it fails, I have to analyse the results and do the research again,” she reveals about the challenging process she undergoes.
Chan is currently researching a cure for the hand, foot and mouth disease—a contagious viral illness common in infants and young children.
A cure or treatment for this disease has yet to be found, however, the risk of being infected with it can be significantly reduced by washing the hands regularly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, and to avoid touching the eye, mouth and nose area with unwashed hands as well as disinfect frequently touched surfaces like toys and doorknobs.
After the outbreak of the Enterovirus A71, a disease which could lead to fatal brain infection, Chan realised the importance of finding a cure for it. This prompted her to focus her research on developing a new protein drug that targets the host autophagy machinery to reduce the viral infection.
“Autophagy, or ‘self-eating’ in Greek, is when cells eat the viruses and place them in small bags. The virus then uses this machinery to survive and multiply. We try to block them with protein drugs, which will prevent the multiplication of the virus and thus cure the patient,” she says.
According to Chan, funding issues and the unwillingness of local researchers to share resources remain the main challenge when it comes to carrying out a research. The fund she has received from the fellowship is crucial to kick-start her research in autophagy, which is still a new area of research in Malaysia. She will use it to attend autophagy conferences in the hopes of meeting with other scientists and at the same time be able to present her work.
Possessing both beauty and brains, Chan and other women like her will continue to change the face of science through sheer dedication and passion.
This article previously appeared in our April 2015 issue of Malaysia Tatler. Click here to subscribe to our digital version fo the magazine.
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