Science Faces

Blood vessels give clues to health risks

Dr Cheung, a vascular biologist at A*Star, leads a team which is researching ways to predict the risk of developing illnesses such as stroke and vascular dementia.
Dr Cheung, a vascular biologist at A*Star, leads a team which is researching ways to predict the risk of developing illnesses such as stroke and vascular dementia. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Crux of conditions like stroke and vascular dementia lies in blood vessels, says scientist

How do you take stock of a person's health? If it were up to Dr Christine Cheung, 31, she would check the blood vessels.

She is a vascular biologist who can tell a lot from the health of the vessels that carry blood through the body's tissues and organs.

She has made it her mission to understand the intricate network and extract information that could help to predict the risk of illnesses such as stroke and vascular dementia.

"I believe the crux of many health conditions lies in the blood vessels," she said, citing stroke and vascular dementia patients whose blood vessels are damaged before brain cell deficits happen.

"Research shows it could be something that precedes neuron damage," she noted.

At the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, she leads a team of four which is researching ways to predict the risk of developing such diseases.

  • About the scientist

  • Dr Christine Cheung, 31, is a junior group leader at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), and an adjunct assistant professor of Nanyang Technological University.

    She leads a team that focuses on research into the ageing of blood vessels; in particular, how they affect neurological conditions such as stroke and dementia.

    She earned a PhD in cardiovascular and stem cell medicine from the University of Cambridge and a Bachelor of Engineering (First-Class Honours) in Biomedical Engineering from Imperial College London.

    She is the recipient of a National Science Scholarship from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), and the Independent Fellowship from IMCB.

    For inventing a new way to create organ-specific blood vessels from human stem cells, she was awarded the Young Investigator Prize from the British Society for Cardiovascular Research.

    She was selected to receive an Independent Fellowship and Career Development Award grant from A*Star to support her research in Singapore.

    She is also part of the founding team for Biotech Connection Singapore, a non-profit organisation that aims to promote life-science innovations and entrepreneurship by fostering interaction between academia, industry and businesses.

    Samantha Boh

It is also working towards creating diagnostic tools for early intervention, and eventually hope to pioneer preventive therapies.

In her doctoral research at the University of Cambridge, she invented a way to create organ-specific blood vessels from stem cells.

For this, she won the Young Investigator Prize from the British Society for Cardiovascular Research.

On her return to A*Star in 2012, the team built on her research to develop a method to convert human stem cells into blood vessel cells that mimic those found in the brain.

Now the team uses that to make brain-specific blood vessel cells of specific individuals to study them more closely.

Thescientists hope these studies would help them understand what makes these people genetically predisposed to vascular diseases.

The team is also trying to identify bio-signatures - such as certain proteins and circulating DNA in the blood - which show the health status of blood vessels.

"The big question is how these bio-markers alter the person's underlying biology. We want to know what it means for blood vessel health, whether it is causal or a consequence of the disease," she said.

The A*Star scholar said the aim is really to be able to restore blood vessel health before diseases develop.

While research can be tiring, she is motivated when she thinks about making a difference to stroke survivors and people with dementia, who live out the last stages of their lives in a state of confusion.

The underlying causes for such diseases are still not well understood and managed.

"Unless more scientific progress is achieved by SG100, our healthcare burden on stroke and dementia may supersede spending on any other disease condition," she added.

It is not always smooth sailing in the laboratory but every experiment, whether it yields the desired result or not, is a step forward, she said. To her, it is the "quest for answers" that she finds most satisfying.

But when work stress boils over, she relaxes by singing in a band that includes four other scientists.

"We mostly play pop songs for friends and family but haven't made a public debut," she said.

She also seeks comfort in her husband of seven months, a civil servant and engineer by training - who she met while doing her PhD in cardiovascular and stem cell medicine at Cambridge. This was after obtaining a Bachelor of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering from Imperial College London.

"He understands my work and I guess because he is in a different field, he sees things from a different perspective," she said.

"Sometimes I find his advice can add new dimensions to my work."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2016, with the headline 'ScienceFaces Blood vessels give clues to health risks'. Print Edition | Subscribe