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From lab work to impacting patients' lives
A MOLECULAR biologist by training, Yukti Choudhury spent five years of her PhD investigating the function of just 21 DNA base pairs - the building blocks of DNA - in relation to a specific type of cancer. Though ground-breaking in its own way, the research had "no immediate impact", in contrast to the work that the 35-year-old does as chief technology officer of Lucence Diagnostics.
"In a research career, you're investigating a minute problem in the grand scheme of things," says Dr Yukti. Such extremely specific research is still important in solving medical issues, but how it can be taken out of the lab and translated into the medical field is "not readily apparent" when research is ongoing, she adds.
The most obvious difference between a research career and her current role, she says, is that the technology she works on now is scalable, applicable, and "actually makes a difference to patients' lives".
Dr Yukti previously worked at A*Star's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. At Lucence, she develops the firm's proprietary technology, the core of which is the detection of changes in DNA.
Lucence's work is possible thanks to next-generation DNA sequencing technology, which has brought down the cost of sequencing a whole human genome - a person's entire genetic map - from US$100 million in 2001 to close to US$1,000 today.
Lucence aims to enhance what can be done by sequencing machines, and improve the data quality. This work rests on both data analysis and biological foundations, says Dr Yukti: "It's a marriage of the two. One wouldn't work without the other."
The team she manages includes staff who are qualified in software engineering and bioinformatics, which is the use of software tools for understanding biological data.
Besides digital skills, scientific know-how is required to develop the cancer-related tests that Lucence provides, for instance in determining what parts of the genome need to be studied "in a cost-effective manner".
As Dr Yukti puts it: "Do we really need to look at the whole genome to make certain decisions? Or can just as much information be gathered from, say, 10 targets?" She determines what should go into each test and what samples are needed so the test is "answering the right questions".
Even as Lucence takes research results from the lab into the real world, it is not neglecting the need for further investigation. As the firm processes more and more samples, it is also using them to build up a data bank which it hopes to mine for future discoveries. Says Dr Yukti: "We aim to harness the data that has been gathered on a large scale ... to find further patterns which might be useful for clinical purposes."
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