How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I have two key roles at A*STAR: I’m the Co-Executive Director of the Health and MedTech Horizontal Technology Programme Office; and I’m the Deputy Executive Director, and Director of Biophotonics, leading the Translational Biophotonics Laboratory (TBL), at the Institute of Bioengineering and Bioimaging (IBB).

Through these roles, I’m able to help drive the research community in A*STAR and Singapore towards Medtech and Healthtech clinical translation and commercialisation, aligning to the industry and country’s innovation needs and priorities. I have been pioneering translational biophotonics and made stellar contributions for more than 25 years in Singapore.

I am a strong advocate of bench-to-bedside translation of biophotonics technologies in addressing unmet clinical problems. I am an innovator (over 100 Patents/IPs) and initiated three spin-offs from A*STAR – an incubator for biophotonics devices, a smart wearable wireless solution for respiratory monitoring and a handheld dermatological diagnostic tool.

I have also established two joint industry laboratory partnerships. One of them, the SBIC-iThera Medical Imaging Centre (2018), is the first such centre in the world to advance non-invasive clinical photoacoustic imaging in dermatology and women’s health.

Through the three first-in-human clinical studies, I have pioneered the use of photoacoustic imaging (PAI) in improving the accuracy of margin detection in skin cancer. This reduces the need for re-operative surgeries for breast cancer sufferers and quantitative evaluation of the severity of eczema.

I am honoured to have been recognised for my contributions to biophotonics when I was named a fellow by American Institute of Medical and Bioengineering (2019), Optical Society of America (2015) and SPIE for Women in Optics (2011), for advancing women in STEM education and research.

I take pride in grooming aspiring young researchers by providing clear guidance and opportunities to excel in their research career. My passion and vision in advancing biophotonics as a next generation game changer in medical technologies has motivated many future trailblazers in science.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

It gives me great fulfillment that two of our clinical translation projects from the Translational Biophotonics Laboratory are contributing to timely, personalised healthcare management for patients with cardiorespiratory complications and high risk of ovarian cancer.

The wearable wireless solution, which was licensed to our spin-off Respiree, has been deployed to provide preventive care management for patients with respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, interstitial lung disease, asthma, pneumonia, and Covid-19.

For our proprietary optical spectroscopy based platform assay, we are in the midst of productising this technology to be a point-of-care testing device for intraoperative ovarian cancer diagnosis. Our goal is to enable oncologists to rapidly determine the malignancy level of the ovarian cyst in the operating theatre itself and be able to take the most appropriate next course of treatment action.

What is one unexpected learning from 2021?

It became much clearer to me that the person who drives the translation of a technology into a product and brings it to market need not necessarily be the inventor of the technology or even be an expert in that technology field.

What is key is their ability to identify and be clear of the clinical and market needs of that technology, and be able to effectively manage resources needed to commercialise the product.

What’s your favourite memory from the past year?

I’m proud that Respiree’s innovation was used to relieve many breast cancer patients from having rapid lungs deterioration as a side-effect from their chemotherapy. We are able to use this device as a companion diagnostics for breast cancer intervention, and there are also more applications for Respiree on the horizon.

Clinicians are able to adjust the drug dosage levels based on the advisory or warning signals from Respiree predictive analytics.

What’s a tool or technique you’re excited to explore in 2022?

I’m excited and keen to translate the cutting-edge biophotonics technologies developed from our lab for unmet clinical needs in women’s health, particularly for oncology management, pregnancy care, and postmenopausal care.

Currently, our technologies have shown potential to provide quantifiable molecular information, thus providing greater certainty to oncologists in their assessment of the malignancy level of breast lesions and ovarian cysts.

One such technology is a customised photoacoustic imaging probe that can be integrated to a commercially available ultrasound system. This provides clinical grade structural image and high-resolution biochemical information of the breast during screening, thereby aiding better risk stratification of the indeterminate lesions.

This is expected to negate unnecessary biopsies by 50 per cent, saving time and improving mental wellbeing of the patients, and saving man-hours of the clinicians and pathologists performing the biopsies and subsequent processing.

Another example is our proprietary optical spectroscopy-based platform assay that can be translated into a point-of-care testing device for intraoperative ovarian cancer diagnosis. We have proven that our technology is able to detect and quantify the level of ovarian cancer specific biomarkers. It can also categorise an ovarian cyst as benign, borderline, or malignant within minutes.

What are your priorities for 2022?

My focus will be on progressing several of our biophotonics technologies to a higher technology readiness level, as proof of value medtech and healthtech devices.

Additionally, I’ll be focusing on further strengthening our scientific excellence, recruiting talent to develop a critical mass of expertise in diffuse optics imaging and spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, and photoacoustic imaging.

This will enable us to develop medical and point of care testing devices as well as smart wearables for areas of skin health, women’s health, vascular health, among others. This will build a strong foundation to a future centre of excellence for biophotonics in Singapore and in the region.

Who are the mentors and heroes that inspire you?

I draw inspiration from Dr Bruce Tromberg from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the National Institutes of Health, and Prof Kon Oi Lian from National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS). They were instrumental in shaping my innovation and management values.

Dr Tromberg is one of the world’s leading and prominent photonics researchers and pioneers in translation biophotonics. He has been a great mentor and role model to me, showing how photonics can be applied in clinical translation and medtech commercialisation. That drives me to expand translation biophotonics in Singapore.

As for Prof Kon, she has been a role model for me in terms of leading and growing my career and those of who have been part of my team. When I was at NCCS, she would constantly encourage me to go out of my comfort zone, stretch myself, and to reach my full potential.

Not very common in bosses, but in a highly principled leader, she would urge me to look beyond my current work environment. She said to me “Malini, it’s time to leave the baby swimming pool, you deserve to be in the Olympic pool.” I take that principle with me and instil that now to my staff.

What gets you up in the morning?

I love science and how I am able to use science to make positive contributions to people’s health and wellbeing. With the rapid advancement of science and technology, there is always something new, a new discovery to learn of, every single day. I’m glad that the curiosity and passion to learn is still within, and that keeps me going each day.