Undergoing treatment for cancer is surely one of life’s most challenging trials and Dr Nethia Mohana Kumaran is focused on alleviating patients’ sufferings and improving their quality of life. The Ipoh-born scientist recently won the 11th L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science (Malaysia) fellowship for her research to develop customised treatments for nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC), a type of head and neck cancer.
NPC is a cancer that starts in the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat behind the nose and near the base of the skull.
The 2007 Malaysia Cancer Statistics’ National Cancer Registry Report rates NPC the fourth most common cancer in Malaysia, behind breast, colorectal and trachea, bronchus and lung cancer (trachea, bronchus and lung is grouped as one).
Our country has one of the highest national incidences of NPC in South-East Asia. It is a major health concern, being the third most common cancer among Malaysian men.
Despite its high prevalence, there is still a lack of public awareness on the disease. The cancer strain is found to be higher among the Chinese and Sarawak’s Bidayuh community.
NPC patients suffering from a recurrence or advanced disease develop resistance to treatments and often suffer from undesirable side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, resulting in poor quality of life. Hence, novel therapies or improved treatment strategies are urgently needed for treatment of the cancer.
Dr Nethia explained that deciding on a treatment which would best benefit a cancer patient is often a challenge. The nearly universal emergence of treatment resistance indicates that many cancers have unrecognised sensitivity to drugs, and there is no suitable predictive biomarkers to assist therapy decisions.
“Every cancer has to be treated as an individual entity. We must come out of the ‘one size fits all’ treatment strategies because often, these strategies don’t benefit patients. Therapeutic decision-making must be personalised according to the genetic signature of the cancer.
“My study looks at the BCL-2 protein family for NPC treatment. These proteins regulate apoptosis (a mode of programmed cell death which kill cells),” said Dr Nethia, who was drawn to the BCL-2 protein family while working on her PhD in medicine in Sydney, Australia.
The lecturer explained NPC cells are addicted to certain pro-survival proteins and her research focuses on identifying these proteins and inhibiting them with BH3-mimetics drugs.
“My vision is to personalise BH3-mimetics and offer more effective, customised treatments for NPC patients and save more lives,” said Dr Nethia.
The 34-year-old scientist’s interest in cancer biology was sparked when she delved deeper into understanding how normal cells become cancerous. Her mother, medical lab technician Rajaswari Nadarajah, had always known her daughter would work in science because she was always curious about how things work.
“I always knew I had a knack for biology. Everything about science fascinated me. I loved to learn about the human anatomy, our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and cell regeneration,” said the senior lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Biological Sciences faculty.
“I’m truly elated and deeply honoured. As a young scientist, I need recognition for my work. Hopefully, the award will serve as acknowledgement and open up new avenues for future collaborations to develop a customised approach to treat NPC,” said the elated scientist who receives a RM30,000 grant which will go towards furthering her research.
Recognising women scientists
The L’Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science fellowship was created in 1998 to recognise and promote women in science. Every year, the programme provides fellowships to promising women researchers at crucial junctures in their careers.
Since its inception in Malaysia in 2006, 35 women scientists have received grants worth over RM700,000. Globally, 2530 women scientists have been recognised in 112 countries. 92 Awards Laureates have been honoured in excellence in science, including two scientists who went on to win the Nobel Prize.
Women account for only 30% of world researchers and only 3% of Noble Prizes in sciences have been awarded to women.
This year, there were 139 Malaysian applicants from various fields of sciences. The panel of jury members – led by astrophysicist Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman - evaluated each proposal based on criteria including project significance, originality, contribution to science, methodology and academic achievements.
After months of evaluations, the jury identified two other winners – Dr Fathehah Omar (research on ecological wastewater treatment) and Dr Reena Rajasuriar (unlocking the code in immunological ageing process).
To encourage more female students to venture into the sciences, we need to nurture a liking for the subject, said Dr Nethia.
Parents too should encourage their daughters to channel their interest towards science.
“Don’t discourage them, saying science isn’t for girls and doesn’t pay well. Talk to them about the accomplishments of female scientists and direct them to people who can help them nurture their interest. Bring them to science exhibitions and museums,” said the mother of two-and-a-half-year-old Rakshana Jay Vhinodhan.
Dr Nethia’s husband, MCIS Insurance Berhad’s head of financial risk management Vhinodhan Veerapalan, 36, has been her pillar of strength.
“He takes charge of taking care of our baby and the household when I am away for meetings and conferences. A career in research is always demanding and I always speak to him whenever I need words of encouragement,” she said. Winning the fellowship has made her all the more convinced that women scientists can change the face of science and make a difference in society.
“My mother hoped I’d be a medical doctor. Now, I’m creating solutions that medical doctors can use to treat patients.
“Science brings ideas and ideas lead to research and research outcomes change people’s life and that is how a nation progresses. If students are not groomed in science, then ideas stagnate, research may slowly come to a halt and technology may stop to innovate,” she said.
Honouring women scientists
This year’s L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science award recognises researchers who exemplify women’s scientific excellence and their potential for leading the global community in positive and productive directions.
Their works include contributing to curing disease, increasing food supplies, enabling sustainable development and helping ensure the survival of our planet.
Penangite Dr Fatehah Mohd Omar’s work on wastewater treatment for palm oil industries impressed the judges.
“The award is a huge recognition to me, my family and my friends who have supported me throughout my PhD journey. It is an energy booster to move forward and make more discoveries in my research field,” said the lecturer with Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Civil Engineering.
Through her research, Dr Fatehah endeavours to understand the nature of nano-pollutants in palm oil mill effluent and identify its dispersion in water bodies.
“In 2004, I followed my father, scientist Professor Mohd Omar Abdul Kadir to a wastewater treatment plant in a palm oil plantation. The stench was unbearable and rivers within the plantation were choked up with suspended solids with no signs of aquatic life.
“After completing my PhD, I decided to delve further into industrial wastewater treatment to help preserve our rivers,” said the 35-year-old scientist, who dreams that Malaysia will eventually achieve a green culture similar to European countries and Japan.
Dr Fatehah is still in the preliminary phase of her research. She is currently studying the fundamental characteristics including the stability of industrial pollutants in various conditions. Her aim is to understand the behaviour of wastewater (particularly surface charge and particle size) to provide insightful data to develop a long-term solution.
“I was brought up in Penang and have seen polluted rivers flowing in my neighbourhood since childhood. I want to make a change for the younger generation, for my children and grand children one day,” said the mother-of-five.
The secret to juggling work and running her home include proper time management, patience, will power and a loving husband.
“It’s always the challenge to wear too many hats at one time. Time organisation is on top of the list. Thankfully, my husband is understanding and supportive. I have no maid, so keeping the house clean is an extra challenge for me too.
“I often wake up in the middle of the night to complete my work. But I’ve grown used to it and these are the perks and joys of being a mother, lecturer and scientist.”
Dr Reena Rajasuriar, 38, clinched the fellowship for her work on unlocking the code of immunological ageing process, specifically the potential drivers of premature ageing in HIV and cancer survivors. By identifying the causes, interventions can be developed to slow the immunological ageing process in these individuals and help them to preserve a better quality of life as they grow older.
The Universiti Malaya Medical Faculty lecturer has been studying the potential drivers of premature ageing in HIV and cancer survivors since 2014. Her work was initially focused on HIV but she observed many parallels in the constellation of diseases both HIV and cancer survivors presented in young adulthood.
“As someone trained in immunology, I am interested to explore if there were any common defects in the immune system of both groups of individuals that led to the phenomenon of premature ageing. The biology of ageing in everyone is the same, it’s only that this occurs faster in some individuals. Understanding what factors hasten the process of ageing will be helpful in addressing the issues of quality of life and survivorship in both HIV and cancer patients,” said Dr Reena who is from Klang, Selangor.
The scientist is still in the early stages of mapping out what immunological pathways are affected in both groups when they experience premature ageing.
“We need to delve further to find out what factors affect these pathways. One common feature that we have observed in both cancer survivors and in people living with HIV are that both groups have a high rate of human herpes virus infections. By understanding how these viruses affect the general health of the immune system, we hope to identify a piece in the puzzle of how our immune system directly alters the process of ageing.”
“It has been incredibly humbling to have been chosen from so many other equally qualified scientists. It helps affirm the importance of the work we are doing and will be an encouragement in the face of all the challenges I will face in future,” said Dr Reena.
Since its inception in Malaysia in 2006, the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science award has awarded over RM700,000 in research grants to 35 women scientists. The initiative aims to encourage and celebrate women’s contribution in the field of science, and to debunk the notion that science is men’s domain.
This year, three women scientists were awarded.
- Dr Fatehah Mohd Omar for her research on wastewater treatment for palm oil industries
- Dr Nethia Mohana Kumaran for her work on a customised treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer
- Dr Reena Rajasuriar’s for her commitment to unlocking the code of immunological ageing process
For more details, go to forwomeninscience.com