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Unravelling mysteries behind the mechanics of diseases

DRIVEN: Assoc Prof Lim Chwee Teck, a pioneer in biomechanics at NUS.
WHAT has mechanics got to do with human diseases? Plenty, says Assoc Prof Lim Chwee Teck from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Division of Bioengineering, NUS. Living cells possess mechanical properties and any drastic change in these properties can lead to human diseases. His studies have suggested that the pathophysiology of diseases such as malaria and cancer may be partly due to changes in the physical properties of diseased cells.

Assoc Prof Lim is the first to initiate mechanobiology research on human diseases at cellular and molecular levels at the University. Noting a lack of such research in NUS, Assoc Prof Lim, trained in mechanics at Cambridge, set up the Nano Biomechanics Lab in 2002.

With his engineering background, making the cross to new areas such as biology and medicine was a leap of faith for Assoc Prof Lim. However, this has enabled him to think out of the box and come out with novel and creative ways to study diseases. Not only did he published highly-cited papers in both engineering and biology related journals, he also won more than eight research awards including Best Paper and Best Poster Awards as well a Young Investigator Award. Recognised for his research, Assoc Prof Lim has already delivered more than 100 invited talks both locally and overseas.

He now not only works with local biologists and clinicians but also with researchers from top universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard, Duke, Institut Pasteur, Peking University and Tohoku University. His research has been featured in MIT Technology Review magazine as one of the 10 Emerging Technologies of 2006. Assoc Prof Lim was also featured in the cover story of Pharma Focus Asia magazine in 2008, with two other renowned researchers from the US for their nanotechnological research.

He gives full credit to his multidisciplinary team of post-doctorate fellows and graduate students. "I was fortunate to have an exceptionally talented and hardworking team including medical doctors, engineers and physicists. Also, having good research support definitely helps as it allows me to focus more on the important scientific questions," he said.

Assoc Prof Lim also attributed his success to being given opportunities as an administrator - first as Assistant Dean, which literally "pushed him into the area of bioengineering" and later as Deputy Director, Life Sciences Institute which enabled him to network with like-minded researchers from other faculties, agencies and hospitals.

Currently, he and his team are working on a micro device to retrieve circulating tumour cells in human blood, which has attracted great interest from oncologists. Ultimately, he hopes to develop new diagnostic devices that are not only fast but also sensitive in detecting diseases at the earliest possible stage. Such devices are especially needed for diseases where early diagnosis and detection are crucial.