World Cancer Day: Professor Malini Olivo
"Cancer has impacted me in a personal way. My sister had brain cancer, and I've got colleagues who've lost their loved ones to the disease as well. In fact, I had a cancer scare myself, and I can empathize what patients go through when they sit anxiously in the waiting room for their imaging scan results. It makes me realise that my research has a real and immediate impact on people's lives.
From a very young age, I knew I had wanted to study medicine. Unfortunately, I didn't get into medical school and went into the physics field instead. In order to pursue my passion, I did a PhD in bio-medical physics, specialising in bio-photonics. This was a really new field back in 1985.
It's a combination of biology, physics, photonics and medicine. I did not want to give up on medicine, and with that PhD, I was determined to transfer my knowledge of physics and photonics into the bio- medical field.
It was not easy at all. As a female biomedical physicist then in a pioneering field, I felt very alone in my scientific journey and had no role models in the field to mentor me. I literally knocked on many clinicians' doors to talk to them about bio-photonics, and how we can possibly use new technologies in optics, lasers, photonics, photomedicine, etc. in cancer diagnostics and therapeutics.
In 2011, I introduced photo-acoustic imaging into A*STAR, in SBIC. Basically, in this imaging method one uses light to generate sound waves in tissue and this enables high resolution deep tissue imaging. Sound can be imaged much deeper in tissue then light. Combining light and sound – photo-acoustics – overcomes the past limitations of light imaging and has given birth to a game changing imaging technology.
This pioneering technology can be used for the detection of cancers and other diseases and condition. We have used this in 2016-2017 in pioneering First in Man clinical studies in skin and breast cancer detection here in Singapore.
For the translational research that I do in the biomedical space, I'm very mindful of who we are doing it for. The impact has to be about making a difference to the end user, who is the patient. That's what motivates me and I have truly found my calling as a biomedical physicist.
With A*STAR's ongoing transformations, we are inspired to driving commercialisation of our technologies. If we can bring our technology to the marketplace and help more people, I'll feel that we are addressing life changing problems that will impact us. That, 'truly research will kill cancer'."
Professor Malini Olivo is the Director of Biophotonics and Head Laboratory of Bio-optical Imaging at A*STAR's Singapore Bioimaging Consortium (SBIC). She's also an Adjunct Professor at LKC, NTU. She is an elected Fellow of the American Institute of Medical & Biological Engineering (AIMBE), Fellow of Optical Society of America (OSA) and Fellow of Institute of Physics UK & Ireland.