Accelerating Covid-19 Vaccines from Lab to Clinic
Principal Research Scientist Dr Eugenia Ong has been training to fight against infectious diseases, and when COVID-19 hit, she was prepared to dive into developing new vaccines and drugs to overcome the pandemic.
Dr Eugenia Ong leads the development of molecular tests to shorten the timeline for evaluating new vaccines and drugs against infectious diseases at ViREMiCS.
As a scientist trained in infectious disease research, Dr Eugenia Ong’s immediate thoughts when COVID-19 first hit were: “This was what I was trained to do, so let’s get to work”.
Currently the Principal Research Scientist of the Emerging Infectious Diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School and the Viral Research and Experimental Medicine Centre @ SingHealth- Duke-NUS (ViREMiCS), Dr Eugenia Ong leads the development of molecular tests to shorten the timeline for evaluating new vaccines and drugs against infectious diseases from bench-to-bedside.
Dr Ong’s work with viruses began during her undergraduate studies at Nanyang Technological University.
She majored in Biological Sciences, which introduced her to the hidden world of viruses and the havoc that they can cause to human health and society.
“While it can be daunting, it helps to have a ‘thick skin’ and to be able to resiliently bounce back from failure.
Dr Eugenia Ong
Principal Research Scientist of the Emerging Infectious
She then had the opportunity to conduct her final year project and thesis research in the laboratory of Professor Ooi Eng Eong, from the Emerging Infectious Diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School. Prof Ooi is the co-developer of the locally developed Covid-19 vaccine candidate – Lunar-Cov19, and remains as a key mentor to Dr Ong today.
When Covid-19 cases were first detected in Singapore, Dr Ong and her team were able to quickly contribute to the nascent body of knowledge on COVID-19 regarding the host response to SARS-CoV-2 infection, particularly in patients with varying disease severity.
She said, “Being trained in infectious disease research, it was particularly gratifying that I could immediately apply the training I had received to contribute to the development of new vaccines and drugs for COVID-19, some of which I hope will eventually be licenced for use and directly benefit Singaporeans as we continue to ride out the pandemic.”
Shortening the timeline for vaccine development
Other than being knee-deep in testing COVID-19 vaccines now, another part of her work at ViREMiCS is to drive assay development and validation efforts for various molecular methods. These methods are then used to measure the immune response to vaccination or therapeutic intervention.
Dr Ong helped developed assays used in clinical trials for vaccines and therapeutics against COVID-19, dengue and other acute viral diseases.
Other than COVID-19, these assays she helped developed have also been used in clinical trials for vaccines and therapeutics against other acute viral diseases such as dengue, Zika and yellow fever.
With the current pandemic raising important questions on how to prepare for the next Disease X, Dr Ong believes that it is key to further truncate the timeline for licencing safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics to months or even weeks.
As such, she constantly keeps a lookout for new technologies that can be applied to measure molecules, immune cells and viruses to evaluate the host responses following vaccination or therapeutic intervention.
In the longer future, she also hopes to contribute to a molecular science approach that can accelerate the development of new vaccines and therapeutics, enabling a more streamlined and rapid response for future outbreaks.
Getting to where she is today is not without its own set of challenges.
Dr Ong shared that she had been in many situations where she invested a lot of time and energy, but did not receive the expected outcome. This could happen with experiments, manuscripts, grant proposals and more.
Sharing her advice with other young scientists, she said, “While it can be daunting, it helps to have a ‘thick skin’ and to be able to resiliently bounce back from failure.”
“It also helps if you are working on something you feel passionately about.”