Shaping the future of healthcare

For most students in Malaysia, advancing science at Harvard would likely be a farfetched dream. But for students at UCSI University, it is an annual occurrence. 

The University stands out for its high impact research partnerships which provide opportunities for its undergraduate students to pursue research experience at world-renowned institutions like Harvard Medical School, Imperial College London, University of British Columbia and Tsinghua University. 

When it comes to medicine, research trains students to be better doctors by grooming them to have analytical minds. Not only does it give them an advantage when it comes to diagnosing and treating their patients, but it can also contribute to the discovery of cause and treatment for various ailments, leading to medical breakthroughs. 

UCSI’s international research initiative began in 2013 when UCSI sent its top medical student, Cherish Chong Chiu Wern, for a year-long research programme at Harvard Medical School in Boston. She conducted extensive research on the human body’s adrenal glands and discovered that they regulated the production of aldosterone and corticosterone – a pivotal discovery that no one has made prior. 

Since then, more from UCSI’s Doctor of Medicine programme have been selected including Cherish’s juniors Tan Jia Wei and Ting Pei Yee who recently returned from their own stints at Harvard. 

They were supervised by Professor Dr Gordon Williams, a leading clinician-scientist who has published over 500 papers in high impact scientific journals and who heads the Hormonal Mechanisms of Cardiometabolic Injury Program at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. 

Between them, the girls are expected to deliver up to 15 peer-reviewed publications once they have fully explored the results of their research. 

Jia Wei chose to focus her research efforts on the treatment of cardiovascular diseases via the precision medicine approach, which uses a patient’s genetic profile to identify the multiple genetic variations that influence how people respond to medications. This allows for more accurate predications as to which treatment or prevention strategy will work best for the patient. 

“I worked closely with endocrinologists and fellows at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital to analyse the data of 2,000 patients,” she said. “In doing so, we identified the critical genes that cause susceptibility to hypertension, diabetes mellitus and metabolic syndrome.” 

Among others, she found that biological sex modulates adrenal and blood pressure responses to angiotensin II – a hormone which is major target for drugs that regulate hypertension. She also confirmed a link between race, specifically between African Americans and Caucasians, and the regulation of aldosterone, the hormone that controls sodium levels in the body. 

Jia Wei has already written six papers on her findings that she hopes will be able to provide novel insights into cardiovascular therapeutic options. 

“My year at Harvard was phenomenal,” said Jia Wei. “The people I met were passionate about medicine and active in pursuing scientific advances. I was very inspired and I want to continue in this line and be a physician-researcher in the future.” 

Pei Yee echoes that sentiment, adding, “Prof Williams was a wonderful mentor who was ever willing to share his professional knowledge and expertise in the field. Under his guidance, I’ve learned critical skills like animal handling, experimental design and data analysis.” 

At Harvard, Pei Yee expanded Cherish’s research to investigate the role of the striatin protein in mediating the biosynthesis of aldosterone. Understanding this interaction may lead to valuable approaches in preventing or treating hypertension. 

“We’re really thankful for the opportunity and I think it’s great that UCSI is going the extra mile to make such arrangements with the world’s best universities,” said Pei Yee. “It adds to the student experience and it’s something not many other universities can do.” 

UCSI continues to champion the defining intersection of medicine and laboratory research with its latest collaboration with the University of Melbourne – Australia’s second oldest university and a heavyweight in scientific study. It is home to numerous dedicated research centres including the country’s oldest medical research institute and the largest brain research group in the southern hemisphere. 

This partnership provides UCSI’s second-year medical students the option of pursuing Melbourne University’s Bachelor of Medical Science programme. As a result, the students will obtain this additional qualification on top of their medical degree from UCSI. 

"This one-year programme is a research training initiative that will allow students to explore evidence-based medicine as well as existing medical knowledge in their area of clinical interest,” said Professor Dr Zulkifli Ahmad, Dean of UCSI’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. 

“Our students will also get to work with a senior clinical mentor at one of Melbourne University’s teaching hospitals.” 

Among these are the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Royal Children’s Hospital and St Vincent’s Hospital – spots at these hospitals are limited and competition is stiff. To be attached here will be life changing for medical students. 

Opportunities abound on the local front as well. 

UCSI is one of the only three recognised centres in Malaysia that are receiving live training sessions from the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh – a key organisation that helps set specialty training standards for physicians in the UK. The webstreamed symposiums feature renowned medical specialists from around the world who speak on a wide range of topics at its cutting edge. 

While these opportunities provide a significant edge to UCSI’s medical students, the University continues to seek for more. More international collaborations are in the pipeline and UCSI looks forward to yet another year of world-class opportunities for its students.