How a Singaporean student locked down in Scotland got involved in researching COVID-19 treatments
SINGAPORE: A budding interest in the field of forensics drew a young Giam Yan Hui to study biomedical science at Singapore Polytechnic in 2013.
“I saw one of the modules was forensic biology, and I thought, oh my god, that’s what I really want to do,” said Ms Giam, 24.
After getting her diploma, she went on to the University of Dundee in Scotland to pursue a degree in biomedical sciences in 2016, with her GPA of more than 3.0 granting her direct entry into the third year of the programme.
She is now a PhD student looking into treatments for COVID-19 patients.
Ms Giam had not expected to be involved in research relating to the worst pandemic in decades. Her initial area of study was in developing a target protein as a treatment for bronchiectasis, a type of lung disease.
But this work came to a halt when COVID-19 spread across the United Kingdom and lockdown measures were announced in March.
“I was a little bit frustrated, because I still remember that I made a lot of plans, like next week I'm going to do these experiments,” she told CNA via video from Dundee.
Still, from that setback came opportunity as Ms Giam got the chance to work on two studies involving anti-inflammatory drugs that could treat or reduce lung inflammation in COVID-19 patients.
Her PhD supervisor Professor James Chalmers, who is the British Lung Foundation Professor of Respiratory Research at Dundee University, has been leading the research since April.
According to the university, up to 20 per cent of COVID-19 patients develop inflammation of the lungs which can require them to be ventilated.
The aim of one of the studies Ms Giam is involved in is to see if the drug brenscocatib, which has been shown to reduce inflammation in the lungs of people with underlying lung conditions, can similarly benefit COVID-19 patients.
Ms Giam is also playing a leading role in studying another anti-inflammatory drug called SFX-01. The research focuses on whether SFX-01 can reduce the number of COVID-19 patients who require mechanical ventilation, which could in turn reduce the number of deaths from the disease.
It took some time for her to get used to the sudden change in her area of research, she said.
"But once I got focused on trying to research the topic, I felt less overwhelmed," she added.
“I'm very grateful and (I know) how lucky (I am) to be given this chance to work on COVID-19,” Ms Giam said, noting that she expects to eventually return to her original research once her work on COVID-19 treatment ends.
CIRCUIT BREAKER AND LOCKDOWNS
Ms Giam’s family is in Singapore, and she has tried to explain her work to them over the phone.
She recalled that her parents started panicking in mid-March - shortly before the United Kingdom went into lockdown – when Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged Singaporean students overseas to return home.
But she said she was “very adamant” that she would not fly back as her parents, who are in their 50s and 60s, were in the high-risk group for COVID-19.
It would be better for her to stay in Dundee, Ms Giam said, noting that the Scottish city was far from London, which was at the time one of the worst affected regions in the UK.
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“I'm pretty sure they're proud (of my research), but what they show more is how they're more concerned and worried,” she told CNA, adding that she calls her parents regularly, especially during Singapore’s “circuit breaker” period.
“I was afraid they would get bored staying home every day, so I would try to call,” she said.
“I think they rather liked it that I called regularly. I think my dad sort of enjoyed it when I nagged at him to stay home,” she said with a laugh.
“We just nagged at each other. (They would say) I’m worried about you and I would be like, yah I’m worried about you too … it was all very light-hearted,” said Ms Giam, who is the youngest of three siblings.
While Ms Giam is not optimistic about the possibility of returning home for Chinese New Year, she is hopeful that she will be able to visit Singapore in June next year, before her graduation in 2022.
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When asked what she misses most about Singapore, Ms Giam said it is bubble tea chain Koi, without hesitation.
Laughing, she added that also misses her grandmother’s cooking.
Dundee, with a population of about 150,000, has recorded more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases. Ms Giam noted that the number of cases there is rising again after a brief decline, saying that people are starting to let their guard down.
Ms Giam is pragmatic about the possibility of beating the pandemic.
“I’m not sure how long it would take for a vaccine to be developed,” she said.
“I think we might get to a point where the virus probably wouldn't go away, but we will probably be much more used to dealing with it,” she added.
“And at that point of time we’ll have a treatment … I hope we’ll have a treatment. And so the mortality rate will go down, the risk will go down as well.”