Memories of ‘bunga telang’: Award-winning Dr Serena Nik-Zainal on how cardiologist dad inspired life in medicine

Soo Wern Jun
Dr Serena will receive the award together with her collaborators Dr Paul Calleja and Dr Ignacio Medina from the University of Cambridge at the University of Bern in Switzerland tonight. — Picture via Facebook

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 18 — When Dr Serena Nik-Zainal is not burying her head in cancer genome research, she finds herself outdoors and dabbles in the Chinese martial art of kung fu. 

The mother of two, who studies mutation patterns in human DNA at the prestigious University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, is also a lover of music. 

However, medicine is the apparent first love of Dr Serena, who is set to receive the Dr Josef Steiner Award for cancer genome research later tonight. Speaking to Malay Mail, she paid tribute to her father for sparking her interest in the field.

“I was inspired by the person who started what is now the National Heart Institute or IJN,” she said in an email interview, referring to the late Datuk Dr Nik Zainal Abidin Nik Abdul.

“I remember the old building very well, and playing in the small green area outside the front door with the ‘bunga telang’ (butterfly pea flower). 

“He was hugely professional, dedicated and determined. But I was also inspired by a mother whom was worldly, solid, resourceful, intelligent in those human qualities, a kind person and a very strong soul,” Dr Serena added.

The UK-based Malaysian scientist will be receiving the award with fellow Cambridge collaborators Dr Paul Calleja and Dr Ignacio Medina, at the University of Bern in Switzerland at around 11pm Malaysian time. 

According to the University of Cambridge’s Academic Department of Medical Genetics, she will also be presenting her work under the title “Accelerating holistic cancer genome interpretation towards the clinic” during the award ceremony. 

Based on her research, mutations in cancer tumours can be analysed using new bioinformatic methods which enabled new approaches to targeted therapies. 

One may wonder if Dr Serena was ever pressured into pursuing the medical field, since she might have had to live up to her father’s reputation in the medical fraternity. 

Dr Nik Zainal who died on October 29, 2007, was known as the cardiologist who brought fame to IJN and the country in general. He was also a member of the team involved in the country’s first coronary bypass surgery in 1982. 

“Was I pressured into medicine? Yes and no. I would have chosen medicine even if my father was not a doctor. 

“It has always been a bit of a joke that in Asian households, you have to be a doctor, engineer or a lawyer. But even without that, I suspect I would have ended up a doctor,” she explained. 

UK-based Malaysian scientist Prof Dr Serena Nik-Zainal (right) with her colleagues from the University of Cambridge, where she is now based. ― Picture via Twitter/SerenaNikZainal

Award a ‘young’ team effort

Although she has been deeply invested in her research work, Dr Serena said she still does clinical work. 

“In fact on Monday, I just did a clinic and I still love seeing patients. That’s why I do the research, because I want to fix things for people,” she added. 

Dr Serena said she was further moved by her patients who have inherited genetic abnormalities or children with learning disabilities and syndromes. 

“I am a doctor of rare, genetic, inherited disorders. My job is to try to make a diagnosis in these rare cases and to try to ensure that the patients get the best care possible.

“Making a diagnosis can be quite tricky. And although there were new technologies available, I found it deeply frustrating to have the most up-to-date data in my hand but not fully understanding it. 

“So, I decided to try to understand the latest technology that had come along for being able to read the human genome very quickly, called massively parallel sequencing,” she said. 

She explained that through sequencing, doctors will be able to see all the genetic changes in the human DNA. 

“And I have never looked back,” she added. 

It is not just winning the prized dubbed “Nobel Prize of cancer research” that has sent Dr Serena over the moon, but the fact that her team and her have managed to bag an award at this point of their research work. 

“There are prizes in research that are awarded every year and many are usually for people whom are very senior in the field. 

“Prizes like the Dr Josef Steiner award is aimed at middle-career or up-and-coming people (or teams). 

“So for my team, this is a wonderful boost and an enormous recognition for the kind of work that we do, where we are trying to push bioinformatics towards clinical translation,” said Dr Serena. 

With this achievement, she is looking forward for accelerate the use of these tools in clinical applications. 

She added that this is the beginning to understanding more in the related field. 

“My work is a speck in the entire genomics field internationally. 

“[I think] we have been recognised for making interesting, creative analyses and then taking these highly technical bits of genomics and trying to make it clinically useful, so that it will have an impact on patients,” she said. 

Age of wonders for cancer research

When asked how this research will facilitate the quest to seek a cure for cancer, Dr Serena said the research looks at the entire genome sequence in human cancers, three billion building blocks, or base pairs. 

“By having a full ‘map’ of all the genetic changes in cancer, because cancer are highly mutated entities, we can know exactly what the causes are of each person’s individual cancer. 

“We are more likely to treat a patient more effectively and offer the patient a better quality of life,” she explained. 

She also pointed out that research on cancer has progressed tremendously because cancer research is funded very well. 

Even in the decade that she had been doing this, Dr Serena has witnessed changes that are astonishing. 

“When I started doing whole genome sequencing, it took about three months to get a whole cancer genome. Today, we can do it in one day. 

“We still do not understand what initiates cancer, which ones do badly and do well. 

“How cancer cells interact with the other cells in our tissues. There is plenty more to do, and the genome is only one aspect. More yet to learn,” she said. 

She attributed the success of her research to patients who participated in sharing their materials, tutors, colleagues and collaborators worldwide, as well as charity organisations that had funded her research, training and grants to pursue her interests.

“When I receive this award, it is truly on behalf of and due to a wonderful group of people as this achievement does not come from the work of only one person.”

She has her family to thank, Dr Serena added that her older brother, Dr Nik Halmey, a cardiologist at Gleneagles Hospital here has always looked out for her. 

Apart from her family in Malaysia, one of her biggest supporters is her Irish husband, Dr Eoin O’Brien, who is a geriatrician and stroke physician.

“He is a very kind, a very solid doctor and a rock in my life. I have two wonderfully energetic children, a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. They keep me very busy,” she added. 

Dr Serena also said that she is slowly building links with her Malaysian counterparts at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Kelantan. 

“I hope to be part of the process of getting it going, back home,” she said.

“I have since been collaborating with another Malaysian clinician scientist, Dr Neil Rajan, and we have a scientific paper coming soon. We are so pleased to be flying the Malaysian flag on this paper!” 

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