CNC Illustration by Paige Siyao Lim (@thewaferpaper)

Lee Jia Jun is a research associate at A*STAR, a public agency in Singapore dedicated to research and development. He works on getting new drugs – the medicinal kind – from the lab to the pharmacy shelves.

He speaks to us about the countless people, experiments, instruments and even animals involved (and sacrificed) in this long scientific journey.

What do you do at A*STAR?

I work as an operator at the Experimental Drug Development Centre, and specialise in conducting biological experiments to aid in drug development projects.

So, you invent new drugs?

Unfortunately, I do not invent new drugs myself. Instead, it takes entire teams or companies, or teams of companies, to make a new drug and bring it to the market.

But what does it actually mean to “invent” a new drug?

A structural biologist can check the structures of proteins responsible for diseases and identify possible ways for a compound to target these proteins. A chemist can put together the raw materials and make the compound to target these proteins. These are examples of people who may be closer to “inventors” of drugs. However, that is but the first step in a drug’s long journey to the market, where it can be safely used!

Detection of proteins as black stains using silver ions

Do you check if a new drug is safe and effective then?

Broadly, yes (but I’m most definitely not the only one).

There are many experiments involved to identify if drugs are safe or effective! They can be conducted to test the toxic or therapeutic effects of the drugs in vitro (literally, in glass) on grown cells or in vivo (literally, in the living).

In vivo experiments are usually done on model animals. The most common choice is mice, but monkeys, hamsters, rabbits and rats can be used too. In clinical trials, human volunteers or selected patients can also try the drug, and trained doctors will monitor their health, and evaluate the safety or the usefulness of a drug.

However, the experiments I do are in vitro. I’ll get samples, ranging from mouse whiskers to human cancer samples! My team and I will be responsible for processing these samples, and identifying markers to prove that these drugs are useful or toxic.

What guides your research?

My bosses do.

These are people who are better qualified than I am, to make larger decisions to guide the research direction and how to develop the drug candidates and bring them to the market.

For example, if a drug candidate targets the same protein as some other drug candidates made by a rival company, we have to design experiments to prove that our drug works better! Is our drug more specific to the disease? Can it target more diseases? Does it have fewer side effects?

All these questions have to be answered, bearing in mind the limited budget!

What are some challenges you face in the lab?

The main challenges faced in the lab are usually of a mental nature, as it requires precision and focus, to be able to execute every step of the experiment with minimal errors. The pressure becomes greater, especially when you realise the value (monetary or organic) of some of these samples.

Speaking from experience, I made some crucial errors which led to the rejection of four of my samples, which came from four mice that had undergone drug treatment before being sacrificed. In the context of the larger project, these mice were easily forgotten by the next meeting, but I had to come to terms with their somewhat wasted sacrifice.

Sometimes, it’s not just the experiments that you have to take care of. Just as a kitchen has to be stocked with ingredients, a lab needs to have properly maintained equipment, and enough reagents. As a member of the lab, it is also partly my responsibility to ensure we have these equipment and reagents prepared, forecasted for future experiments.

Transferring an extremely small volume of liquid using a traditional pipette

What are some cool equipment you use in the lab?

I think the answer to this question may have changed as I have continued my journey in science; you see cooler and cooler machines the more you visit larger and richer labs!

Unfortunately, due to costs, I do not really get to use the most expensive and modern instruments.

One instrument I use that I find cool is the Multipette. A pipette allows you to measure and transfer liquids, a single volume at a time. A Multipette on the other hand, can be programmed to take out a larger reservoir of liquid and dispense multiple shots into different receptacles, with just one button! You would obviously have to tell the Multipette how much to dispense and how many times first…

As an analogy, a pipette is like a gun with one bullet loaded at a time, while the Multipette is akin to a gun with a large magazine, and you just have to press the same trigger!

Multipettes with an electronic display (image from Eppendorf)

With so many people and cutting-edge instruments involved, drug development seems costly. How can we ensure that medicine stays affordable?

The way I see it, this is more of an economic issue that stems from how drugs work.

A single drug can’t just target the symptoms and be used for multiple diseases. For instance, you can’t cure anyone with a cough with just cough syrup! They may have a whole range of underlying causes for that cough.

Furthermore, two people with the same disease can have different responses to the same drug, just because they have some differences in their genes.

Therefore, drug development is now moving towards the concept of “personalised medicine” whereby the treatment for each individual patient is carefully tailored. In other words, drugs are made and prescribed to an increasingly specific and hence smaller sub-group of patients with the right underlying causes and genes.

However, for drug distributors to make a profit with less people buying the same drug, the price will inevitably be higher.

That being said there are ways to ensure that medicine stays affordable.

Firstly, economics will dictate that drugs will be developed for diseases that are prevalent. With more people in need of the drug, the price may be lower (not accounting for profits of the drug companies). Secondly, engineers can increase the efficiency of the production of the drug, which can reduce the price of the drug. Lastly, the government can step in and provide subsidies for treatments.

Some people prefer herbal medicine to ‘Western medicine’. Is there a difference between the two?

Based on my limited knowledge, both are essentially the same, drawing upon empirical evidence and reasoning to determine ways to make a patient feel better. Some argue that traditional medicine treats the underlying cause of the disease, while most of Western medicine just targets the symptoms, and that may be true to a certain extent!

One thing is for sure: Western medicine gets more attention, and by extension funding for research, because it is (or it is at least supposed to be) based on properly controlled experiments and statistical significance. Some research labs do draw upon traditional medicine ideas for their research as well, so the difference can be blurred over time!

Sometimes it may be a “placebo effect” as well, where you think you feel better, even though you did not gain any benefit at all!

In my opinion, if it works, it works. At the end of the day, the patient will find what works, and what doesn’t.