A Research Blog

Assistant Professor Owen Rackham from the Duke-NUS Centre for Computational BiologyAssistant Professor Owen Rackham, from the Centre for Computational Biology at Duke-NUS Medical School, shares more about a study he co-authored on long non-coding RNAs.

In recent years a great deal of attention has been focused on understanding the parts of our genome that don’t encode for proteins. A landmark study has mapped out these poorly understood and highly controversial class of genes, known as long non-coding RNAs and in doing so has found evidence of evolutionary selection and links with major diseases, including cancer.

This is the latest work from the FANTOM5 consortium, an international group of researchers whose aim is to annotate and understand the genome led by RIKEN - Japan's largest research institute for basic and applied research. I am a member of FANTOM5 and coauthor of the findings that were published in Nature last month.

The work involved generating a comprehensive atlas of 27,919 long non-coding RNAs and summarised, for the first time, their expression patterns across the major human cell types and tissues.

By intersecting this atlas with genomic and genetic data, their results suggest that 19,175 of these RNAs might be functional, hinting that there could be as many, or even more, functional non-coding RNAs than the approximately 20,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome.


In 2016, the Zika virus dominated all other public health concerns. It was an epidemic in South America and threatened to become one in Asia. Zika is a flavivirus that is mainly spread by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. Symptoms range from mild fever to body aches, while an infection during pregnancy could cause foetal brain defects, such as microcephaly.

This year Zika isn’t the hot topic that it was, but it remains a research priority and health concern.

Recently, Assistant Professor Julien Pompon and his team, from the Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme at Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS), published research that identified the main carrier for an Asian Zika virus strain and compared different Zika virus strains. This work increases our understanding of the virus transmission.

Asst Prof Pompon compared the susceptibility of Aedes aegypti, Aedes albopictus and Culex quinquefasciatus to an Asian Zika virus strain (H/PF13). The mosquitoes from these species were orally fed infected blood and, at seven days post infection, were examined to determine their infection rate and genome copies of the virus. High infection rates and genome copies indicate that the mosquito is more susceptible to picking up and transmitting a virus.

Asst Prof Julian Lim from the Duke-NUS Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience

There are times in a person’s life when sleeping enough doesn’t seem possible. Most of these times tend to coincide with having to take final exams. So, the question is, when a person is sleep deprived, should they take a nap, take a break, or power through and keep studying - for the best result?

This question was answered in a recently published Journal of Sleep Research study by a team of researchers from the Centre
for Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN) at Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS).

Many things affect cognitive performance. Some of these factors include circadian rhythms, taking a rest break and how long a person spends doing a continuous task. However, how these factors interact to influence cognitive performance is poorly understood.

To shed more light on this topic, Assistant Professor Julian Lim and team from the CCN decided to investigate the effects of napping on the processing speed of a sleep restricted person. Processing speed, or how quickly a person is able to carry out simple or automatic cognitive tasks, is an important contributor to cognitive performance.

The study observed 57 healthy adolescents (26 female, 31 male, aged 15 to 19) as part of the CCN’s Need For Sleep 2 study. In the course of this study, participants were sleep deprived. They were allowed to sleep for five hours a night, over five days, which was followed by nine hours of recovery sleep for two days.

In picture from left: Yoecelyn, Bryan Chua, Lim Sze-Xian, Eleanor Chew, Derek Lee, Prof Ivy Ng (Group CEO, SingHealth)

SingHealth Residency recently held the SingHealth Hackathon 2017 where staff and students from SingHealth and Duke-NUS, submitted proposals for innovations that would promote better coordination, communication and rehabilitation to improve patient care systems.  Fifteen teams competed in the Hackathon, and three teams were selected as top prize-winners.

Last week, Microscope talked to Duke-NUS students from CHIT, one of the winning teams. This week we chat with Lim Sze-Xian, Duke-NUS MD/PhD student and member of the winning team Move It!, about his experience working with a diverse team, his main takeaway and why he entered the Hackathon.

Describe Move It!

Move It! is an application that immerses patients in an interactive video game, which encourages them to perform rehabilitation exercises so as to recover their strength and range of motion more quickly. Move It! makes rehabilitation exercises easy to follow so patients know how to move their limbs by themselves safely, without the need of having a physiotherapist supervising them. The exercises that the patients are shown are customised to their specific condition. Our team is working towards commercialising the application so that patients will be able to start to benefit from it.

How did your team come up with the idea for your entry?

From left: Tan Chin Yee, Anthony Li, Izza Atiqa Ishak, Zach Tan Ye Zan, Prof Ivy Ng (Group CEO, SingHealth). Missing from photo: Tan Qian Ying Gayle.

In January of this year, SingHealth Residency held the first-ever SingHealth Hackathon that called for innovations that would promote better coordination, communication and rehabilitation to improve patient care systems. The SingHealth Hackathon 2017 was co-initiated by Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) alumna, Dr Rena Dharmawan, and NUS Alumna, Dr Cheong May Anne.

Fifteen teams, made up of staff and students from SingHealth and Duke-NUS, submitted their innovations, and three were selected as top prize winners. Today, we catch up with second-year Duke-NUS students, Tan Chin Yee and Anthony Li, members of winning team CHIT (Communicating Healthcare, Integrating Technology), to find out more about the application they devised, their SingHealth team members and what’s next for them.

Describe CHIT.

Chin Yee: CHIT is a secure communication platform for a patient’s medical team, which includes their doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and more, to communicate about the patient. Each patient’s records, medication and care are tagged to a patient-specific chat room. This way, every person on the medical team is kept up-to-date, and reduces any potential of miscommunication.

How did you come up with the idea of CHIT?

Cheryl McCafferyIn this continuing conversation series with members from Centre for Technology & Development (CTeD), let’s find out more from Cheryl McCaffery, Deputy Director of CTeD, about how you can work with CTeD to assess a technology’s potential for commercial development.

CTeD is always happy to hear about new technologies arising from Duke-NUS research programmes. Whenever a new technology is devised (e.g. a new drug or method for diagnosing a disease), you are welcome to speak to us for advice on all aspects of intellectual property protection and commercialisation.


Emeritus Professor Duane Gubler is an international expert on vector borne-infectious diseases and a go-to spokesperson for the media for all things infectious disease-related. This year alone he has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Straits Times, and Vox, among other media outlets.

“Arboviruses: Molecular Biology, Evolution and Control on arboviruses”, a well-received book edited by Prof Gubler, looks at viruses that are transmitted by arthropod vectors, such as mosquitoes, flies, sand flies, lice, fleas, ticks and mites. Since Zika was declared a major global emergency last year, and dengue remains a consistent health threat and concern, the text is a much welcome contribution to the literature on these groups of viruses.

Microscope caught up with Prof Gubler for more on his book and his thoughts on global health concerns:

How did you come up with the concept for this book?

I was approached by several publishers to edit and compile a book that looked at arboviruses. In the past 30 years there has been a dramatic increase in emerging epidemic arboviral diseases, which explains the interest and demand for such a book.

What were your considerations when choosing the contributors/topics for each chapter?

My co-editor, Nikos Vasilakis and I, wanted to get the global thought leaders in the field to review current status of various topics including the genomic organisation of arboviruses, host metabolism, arbovirus evolution and more.

Who is this book meant for?

New study discovers pervasive RNA changes in the epileptic brain

Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder afflicting over 60 million people worldwide. The disorder is characterised by a tendency to have recurring, unprovoked seizures, and can cause other health problems. While seizures can be in part controlled by medication, there is currently no effective cure for epilepsy.  More fundamental research is needed to better understand the disorder and to identify treatment targets.

DNA is a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth and function of all living organisms, while RNA is a molecule that, amongst other functions, is essential for the transmission and use of these genetic instructions. Both DNA and RNA are essential for all known forms of life.

Currently, most of the research in epilepsy is focused on mutations and variations in the DNA. However, other types of variations might occur specifically in the RNA, which is a process called RNA  editing. Hence, it may be important to examine both DNA and RNA variations in epilepsy. This new research shifts the focus from solely analysing DNA, to analysing RNA editing in the epileptic brain.

In a study published in Genome Research, Duke-NUS Medical School’s (Duke-NUS) Associate Professor Enrico Petretto examined the role of RNA editing in the brain and discovered a new disease mechanism for epilepsy. The study’s findings breathe new life into the field of RNA editing research and therapy development for epilepsy.

Colour my heart red

 Stem cell-derived human muscle fibers in an infarcted mouse heart are shown in this colourful image. Human cells are marked in green and the heart muscle is marked in red. The blue colour that can be seen is the cell nucleus.

Image by Chong Li Yen, a Research Associate in the laboratory of Professor Karl Tryggvason, 
Tanoto Foundation Professor of Diabetes Research
Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders Programme
Duke-NUS Medical School


Dr Adlina Maulod with Mdm Tan Swan Eng (front), aged 102, at the 2016 Centenarian Conference organised by Duke-NUS' Centre for Ageing Research and EducationResearch Fellow Dr Adlina Maulod recently joined Duke-NUS Medical School’s Centre for Ageing Research and Education (CARE), bringing a fresh perspective and lens to the research that CARE does. Today we talk to her about her background and role in CARE.

1. Tell us about your academic background.

I have always been interested in issues about power, identity and the body. I earned my PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Purdue University, specializing in gender and sexuality studies, to explore these issues.

 For my dissertation in Purdue, I explored how female same-sex couples become a family and navigate various reproductive, cultural and economic barriers in their desire to raise children. My work addresses the need to pay attention to stratified forms of reproduction, in which the privilege to bear and nurture children are unequally distributed as it is based on one’s marital status, race/ ethnicity, class, gendered sexuality and able-bodiedness. 

2. How does your academic background contribute to the work that you do now?



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