Dr John Anantharajah Tambyah (’63) will always be... ...
The Gift of Hope for Young Lives
April 27, 2018
Associate Professor Allen Yeoh
Nineteen-year-old Ben was at the cusp of a new life – he was a month away from joining the National University of Singapore (NUS) – when he was struck by shattering news: he had acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL), a blood cancer that usually occurs in children and rarely in adults. Overnight, Ben, who had been looking forward to the challenges of student life, was facing far graver challenges. “It was very upsetting. I had no idea if I could go back to a normal life,” Ben recalls. To add on to his worries, the financial burden of seeking the complex treatment he needed was too high for his parents, who were both teachers.
Fortunately, help was at hand. Ben’s plight was brought to the attention of Lee Foundation, which funded his treatment by Associate Professor Allen Yeoh, a paediatric cancer specialist and key paediatric cancer researcher at NUS Medicine. A/Prof Yeoh, who is one of the brains behind the NUH’s 85-percent cure rate for childhood leukaemia, took Ben on as his first adult patient in his leukemia research trials. NUH is the principal teaching hospital of NUS Medicine and A/Prof Yeoh is Senior Consultant at University Children’s Medical Institute’s Division of Paediatric Haematology-Oncology at the NUH.
Ben eventually beat the odds – he graduated from NUS’ School of Design and Environment, and became one of A/Prof Yeoh’s and his team’s many success stories.
A/Prof Yeoh, the Viva-Goh Foundation Associate Professor, attributes his department’s success to a great extent to gifts from foundations such as the Lee Foundation, Children’s Cancer Foundation , the Goh Foundation and Viva Foundation for children with cancer, whose seed funding allowed him to, as he says, “catch the winds” of progress in biomedical research in Singapore. Philanthropic funding such as these enabled him to build infrastructure and manpower, which is crucial to monitoring patients over the years and building data for his research.
A/Prof Yeoh and NUS Medicine have long been at the vanguard of paediatric leukaemia research and discovery. His mentor, Prof Quah Thuan Chong, Department of Paediatrics, NUS Medicine, was among the first in Asia to replace the traditional routine radiation therapy to the brain and testes, which affected children’s IQ and left males sterile, with high doses of chemotherapy. The cure rate jumped from 50 to 75 percent in trials that ran from 1988 to 1996.
A/Prof Yeoh and his team continue to charge ahead with their pioneering work and are now exploring one of the most promising and exciting new treatments for cancer – immunotherapy. Unlike chemotherapy, it involves harnessing the power of the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells. A key member of his team is Prof Dario Campana, described by Forbes magazine as a “real thought leader in the field of cancer cell therapies”. Prof Dario, who holds the prestigious title of NMRC STaR Investigator, and is also the holder of the Mrs. Lee Kong Chian Chair in Advanced Cellular Therapy, has already developed at least 2 landmark cellular-based cancer therapies that have proven useful clinically.
It is with the help of dedicated scientists like Profs Yeoh and Campana and the generosity of donors like the Lee Foundation, the Goh Foundation, the Children’s Cancer Foundation and the Viva Foundation for children with cancer that, as with the story of Ben, those of many other cancer-stricken children, continue to have the same happy endings to this day.