Woman scientist uses bodily fluids to detect cancer biomarkers, wins prestigious award


Dr Nadiah Abu was awarded the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science Awards 2022 for her cancer research. Photo: L'Oreal Foundation

Despite all the cancer research that has been conducted, it is still one of the major causes of death in Malaysia and around the world, says Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia research fellow Dr Nadiah Abu.

“This is why it’s really important to get all the research and help we can to curb the disease,” says the 35-year-old who has also had several family members affected by the disease, including her grandmother and mother-in-law.

Nadiah was recently awarded the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science Awards 2022 for her cancer research. She uses bodily fluids to detect cancer biomarkers, particularly for colorectal cancer. Her project focuses on detecting a particular protein – extracellular vesicle derived heat-shock protein 70 (EV-HSP70) – where the method is both specific and high in sensitivity, and hence more accurate. The method she is working on can also be used to detect biomarkers for other diseases too. Current methods to detect this biomarker are tedious, not specific and require high-end instrumentation but Nadiah’s innovative research aspires to change that and her project will directly impact future detection for cancer patients.

Nadiah, who enjoys “reading Wikepedia, watching Netflix and shopping during whatever free time she has”, reveals that she decided to pursue the field of biotechnology because of the influence of her biology teacher from secondary school.

“My late teacher Cikgu Hamzani always told me that I was a natural in his class and although I didn’t really pay much attention to it at that time, I ‘stumbled’ upon the course of biotechnology and after researching about it, decided it would be something interesting to venture into,” she recalls.

Nadiah applied and was offered the opportunity to do a biotechnology degree. She fell in love with the course instantly and has never looked back since.

She received her undergraduate degree in Biotechnology from Penn State University in the United States and continued her PhD in Universiti Putra Malaysia in Serdang, Selangor.

Life of research

It’s really important to get all the research and help we can to curb cancer because it's still one of the major causes of death in Malaysia and around the world, says Nadiah. Photo: L'Oreal Foundation- L'Oreal FoundationIt’s really important to get all the research and help we can to curb cancer because it's still one of the major causes of death in Malaysia and around the world, says Nadiah. Photo: L'Oreal Foundation- L'Oreal FoundationAs a cancer researcher, Nadiah conducts research by doing experiments, analysing data, and documenting the results. She also supervises and teaches postgraduate students doing their Masters and PhD.

Nadiah received the award to identify the presence of a protein called HSP70 which is present in abundance in cancer patients, and can be found in the extracellular vesicles (entities released by the cells into circulation).

“This means we can use bodily fluids, such as blood, to detect the presence of this protein,” she says.

It’s my desire to be able to contribute towards the understanding of cancer. We hope that our research will bridge the gap between fundamental concepts, with practical applied sciences, she says.

My aim is to apply a non-invasive way to detect cancer in the hope that it will further improve cancer screening by enabling early detection, she adds.

Nadiah admits there were challenges that she has encountered in her research.

“Science is dynamic and there are times when things don’t go according to plan but that’s alright. Failed experiments, inconclusive results, and inaccurate hypotheses are part of doing research.

“We’ve often had to go through several rounds of ‘trial and error’ in order to obtain the necessary results. When this happens, we take a step back and look at all the available information because sometimes, the solution or best idea is right under our nose. We also get insights from our peers as science isn’t a one-man show but involves teamwork.”

Balancing family and work

Nadiah uses bodily fluids to detect cancer biomarkers, particularly for colorectal cancer.Photo: L'Oreal FoundationNadiah uses bodily fluids to detect cancer biomarkers, particularly for colorectal cancer.Photo: L'Oreal FoundationNadiah has also faced challenges in her career, as a woman.

“The challenges I faced as a woman are similar to other careers. Juggling between motherhood and work is one of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered. Fortunately, I’ve a very supportive husband and family,” she says.

Nadiah who is from Melaka and grew up in several places including England, as well as Gombak, Putrajaya and Melaka, is the eldest of five daughters and married to a consultant. The couple have two sons aged five and one.

Her future plans with regards to her research are to optimise a few parameters of the experiments and to validate her method using clinical samples from the hospital.

“In the long run, I plan to get industry collaborations and also set up a start-up company focusing on extracellular vesicles. This field is relatively new in Malaysia but it has recently gained traction among other researchers too. And it would be great if we could establish a research community to focus on this,” she says.

It’s really important to get all the research and help we can to curb cancer because it's still one of the major causes of death in Malaysia and around the world, says Nadiah. Photo: L'Oreal Foundation- L'Oreal FoundationIt’s really important to get all the research and help we can to curb cancer because it's still one of the major causes of death in Malaysia and around the world, says Nadiah. Photo: L'Oreal Foundation- L'Oreal FoundationNadiah says it’s important for more women to take up science.

“Science needs women. Inclusivity in science is important because we constitute half the population and often see things differently. Diversity is also important as it encourages greater innovation and breakthrough discoveries.

“To all the aspiring young women scientists, be passionately curious and science will love you back,” she encourages.

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