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The Eye Specialist: Tina Wong

With innovation that puts Singapore on the world biotechnology map, this clinician-scientist is set to combat blindness due to glaucoma

The Eye Specialist: Tina Wong

Associate Professor Tina Wong has always gone after what she wanted — even at all of age three. Bedazzled by a pair of red T-strap shoes while out shopping with mum, she decided, quite innocently, to swap her own for the red ones. “My mum only discovered I had new shoes on when she was putting me in the car seat! She was so embarrassed,” the 45-year-old laughs.
Having put her naivety behind her, Wong, now an eye surgeon and Research Head of Ocular Therapeutics and Drug Delivery at the Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI), relies on good old fashioned hard work to achieve her goals. It was with this dedication and perseverance that she jointly developed a nanomedicine that allows glaucoma patients to do away with daily eye drops — a breakthrough which earned her and collaborators, Professors Subbu Venkatraman and Freddy Boey from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the President's Technology Award in November.
Motivated by the sheer fact that glaucoma is estimated to affect some 80 million people worldwide and is the number one cause of irreversible blindness, the sustained-release drug delivery system has been six years in the making. When detected early, glaucoma is traditionally treated with eye drops, with surgery considered only when medication does not deliver desired results.
However, as the senior consultant at the Singapore National Eye Centre points out, blindness resulting from glaucoma still occurs, due to the incorrect or inconsistent administration of eye drops. Wong tells us about a patient who first came to her at age 18 with early-stage glaucoma. In the next four years, due to her inconsistency of administering the medicine and failure to seek follow-up consultation, she had lost 80 percent of vision in both eyes.
“She now requires surgery for both eyes and faces a high risk of going blind. And her life has only just started,” Wong says with a sigh. “It is patients like her that spur me on to think of ways to help them manage their eye condition better so that I won't have to tell them that there's nothing I can do.”
With her ophthalmic innovation — known as liposomal latanoprost — medication can now be programmed to be released over an extended period of several months. Each dosage is made up of millions of nano-sized capsules (thousands of times smaller than a speck of dust) that contain an anti-glaucoma drug that has been approved worldwide for daily use.
“The system ensures that the right drug dosage is administered, eradicating all the common problems associated with eye drops,” Wong, also an associate professor at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, elaborates.
Peregrine Ophthalmic — the company under which Wong is developing the technology as its co-founder and chief executive officer — has thus far completed its first round of clinical trials here in Singapore. Among the promising results registered, it was noted that the patented technology was able to keep eye pressure down (the key to treating glaucoma) for more than three months. Comparatively, similar drug delivery platforms developed by others have only managed to keep pressure down in less than a month, Wong shares.
With the results speaking for itself, it is now full steam ahead for Wong and her team at Peregrine, which are in the midst of applying for regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct a larger scale trial in the US. Supported by a $3 million grant from Spring Singapore, the trial will involve more than 80 patients from eye centres and hospitals across the US. Results from the trial are expected to be available in a year.
After this round of clinical studies, Wong will next work towards achieving her target goal of 300 patients — the requisite number needed for her technology to be commercially viable and to reach patients globally. “The next step is for us to partner with someone who would be able to help us achieve [scalability]. After which, it is all systems go,” she says.
Already, Peregrine has been courted by international pharmaceutical companies, but exactly which ones, Wong remains tight-lipped. “It is, after all, a business, so we are keeping our options open for the best mutually beneficial deal,” says Wong, adding that the technology is projected to be released in the global market sometime between 2017 and 2018.
All this is not too shabby for the British-born doctor, who was unknown to the local medical community when she first moved here from London in 2007. “It was the opportunity to be a doctor, surgeon and scientist simultaneously that brought me to Singapore,” she reveals. “In the UK, such a position was not available and I felt that it was a waste as that was what I had trained for.”
Effervescent by nature, Wong earned dual degrees (in Medicine and Science) from the University of London's St George's medical school and a PhD from University College London, before embarking on her ophthalmic training at the prestigious Moorfields Eye Hospital. She had pursued the additional doctorate, she says, so that she would be able to practice as both a surgeon and clinician-scientist.
“I am able to sit on both sides of the fence and see what is needed for patients in the clinic, as well as what is possible to achieve in the lab. For example, a scientist might have a great idea of what can be created in a lab, but the doctor can see that holistically, this solution may not fit in with the other problems related to a patient's medical condition,” she explains.
Among her early mentors was Professor Sir Peng Tee Khaw, whom she understudied at the Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. Knighted in 2013, he is recognised worldwide for developing and improving surgical techniques for glaucoma, notably the internationally used Moorfields Safer Surgery System.
“I had the great fortune of being mentored by someone who is utterly passionate about finding the best treatment for his patients. He never sought personal glory and constantly encouraged me to challenge myself. If I could just have one page out of his book, I would be so lucky,” she says.
Outside of medicine, it is her father whom she credits as a major driving force in life. A Hong Kong migrant, he worked tirelessly, taking only one day off each year at Christmas, to grow a successful chain of Chinese restaurants in the UK and Canada, just so that he could enrol Wong and her four younger siblings in private schools. Although conservative and traditional — he permitted only Cantonese to be spoken at home and forbade his daughters to wear make-up till they were 16 — he encouraged all his children, regardless of gender, to pursue their dreams.
“He constantly told us that we could do it. So it never crossed my mind that what I wanted to achieve was out of reach. When you have supportive mentors, you feel invincible,” she says.
The last, and likely most important, of the gentlemen in her life is her husband of 13 years, Ivan Howden. Of English and Hong Kong-Chinese descent, he is her biggest cheerleader, Together for more than two decades — they met on a blind date in 1993 — the pair have a 10-year-old son, James. “Having to balance a demanding career with my family is my biggest challenge. I have to be mindful to keep work at work and not let it eat into family time. I am where I am today because of the love and support from my husband and family.”
While most of their time is spent doing “delightfully mundane” things with James, such as going to the movies or having dim sum, the couple also makes it a point to schedule date night once a week. When time permits, the two also head down to the firing range at the Singapore Rifle Club. (“Tina has a fantastic pistol shot,” Howden, a former head of a private security firm and now a writer, tells us when he visits her on set.)
Aside from her natural ability with firearms and the excessive amount of time she devotes to research, Wong also takes delight in, as she puts it, more “fashionable matters”, such as adding to her already 150-strong collection of shoes.
As the saying goes: “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.”
CREATIVE DIRECTOR/ CATHERINE WONG
PHOTOGRAPHER/ GAN
PRODUCER/ SUHANA AB
FASHION STYLIST/ VERNON SIM
HAIR & MAKE-UP ARTIST/ GREGO USING TOM FORD BEAUTY AND L'ORÉAL PROFESSIONEL TECNI.ART
FASHION ASSISTANT/ CHRISTINE LIM
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT/ ANG JONG JYE, SAMSIDIN BADERI AND SITI NORLINA YUSOFF