A*Star researcher one of two women scientists to win prestigious international award

Professor Jackie Yi-Ru Ying (left) and Professor Sarah Gilbert received the King Faisal Prize for their contributions to science and medicine. PHOTOS: KING FAISAL PRIZE

SINGAPORE - Two female scientists – a Singapore-based nanotechnology scientist and a Covid-19 vaccine developer – have received one of the most prestigious international awards for their contributions to medicine and science. 

One of them is Professor Jackie Yi-Ru Ying, senior fellow and director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*Star) NanoBio Lab.

The King Faisal Prize recognises outstanding achievements in service to Islam, Islamic studies, Arabic language and literature, medicine and science.

The awards were first given out in 1979, and since then, 282 recipients from 44 countries have been honoured, with more than 20 going on to win a Nobel Prize.

In a media release announcing the 2023 laureates, the Saudi Arabia-based King Faisal Foundation said Prof Ying was selected for her work on the synthesis of various advanced nanomaterials and systems, and their applications in energy conversion and biomedicine. 

Her inventions have been used to solve challenges in medicine, chemistry and energy.

She has more than 200 primary patents and patent applications under her belt. Forty-two of them have been licensed to multinational and start-up companies for applications such as nanomedicine, drug delivery, and cell and tissue engineering.

Her 386 publications have received more than 46,690 citations. 

In 2005, Prof Ying was inducted into the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina as its youngest member.

She was also the inaugural winner of the Mustafa Prize’s top scientific achievement award for her research in bio-nanotechnology in 2015. The prize is granted to research that has improved human life and made tangible and cutting-edge innovations on the boundaries of science or has presented new scientific methodology.

In 2021, Prof Ying also became the first scientist to be elected as a member of the prestigious United States National Academy of Engineering for research based in Singapore.

“This is really unexpected, and I am really grateful to receive this award knowing how selective the prize is. This is a recognition of the research conducted by my lab, and it would not have been possible without the hard work and creativity of my staff and students at NanoBio Lab, the former Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” said Prof Ying.

The other female King Faisal Prize winner is Professor Sarah Gilbert, one of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.

The chair of vaccinology at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Medicine succeeded in making the vaccine after 10 months using a novel method.

Instead of the traditional method, which uses a weakened form of the original infection and requires a long time to develop in the human body, Prof Gilbert genetically modified a weakened version of a chimpanzee cold virus to be injected into humans without causing an infection. 

This modified virus became the essence of the vaccine, carrying the genetic instructions for the coronavirus spike protein.

When the modified virus enters a human cell, it uses a genetic code or instructions to produce the specific surface spike protein. This triggers an immune response, preparing the body’s immune system to attack the coronavirus if it infects the body.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been in use in more than 180 countries due to its efficiency, low cost and accessibility.

Two other 2023 medicine and science laureates are Professor Dan Barouch, who developed Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, and Professor Chad Mirkin, whose work helped define the modern age of nanotechnology. 

Outstanding thinkers and scholars in the fields of Arabic language and literature, and Islamic studies; and leaders who played a pivotal role in serving Muslims and humanity at large were also honoured. 

Each winner will receive US$200,000 (S$267,000), a 24-carat gold medal and a certificate.

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