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TeamTalk: Dr Cheng He

In MiRXES’ earliest days, the company made its mark with its reverse transcription-quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) technology platform for the detection of microRNAs (miRNAs) and other non-coding RNAs.

Since then, MiRXES has translated its technology into pioneering products with literally life-changing impacts. For instance, through the GASTROClear test, gastric cancer can be detected swiftly and at stages early enough for therapy to make a real difference. Meanwhile, through the discovery panels, relevant miRNAs across a spectrum of diseases can reliably be profiled.

As MiRXES’ Vice President for Research and Development, Dr. Cheng He is at the forefront of the company’s mission to take on the world’s greatest healthcare challenges—one innovative solution at a time. In this feature, discover what it’s like to innovate for a living and what it takes to create a successful product.

Dr Cheng He, VP for R&D at MiRXES.

1. Tell us how you first came to join MiRXES. 

I joined MiRXES after finishing a short stint in the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). I had known [MiRXES co-founder] Professor Too Heng-Phon in my PhD studies first as my collaborator, and then later as my co-supervisor.

At that time, I had already heard many wonderful things about MiRXES and its technology. Later on, the co-founders asked me if I was interested to join MiRXES. I said yes, because I was intrigued by the technology’s potential and the company’s vision of detecting cancer early to save lives.

For a few years, it was a very busy when the company was small, but I have always been impressed by the founding team’s scientific rigor and passion, and that motivated me to stay and always strive to achieve better results.

2. Can you describe what a typical day in your life as MiRXES’ VP for R&D is like? 

My typical day revolves around discussions. I usually spend 40 percent of my time talking to team members, discussing projects, looking at data, coordinating and brainstorming. I spend about another 40 percent of my time with other colleagues and external collaborators. There is always need for clear and precise communications to all stakeholders. I spend the rest of my time trying to keep up with the latest developments in the field.

3. You played a pivotal role in establishing MiRXES’ manufacturing operations at Tukang Innovation Grove. Did the team encounter any challenges in the process? How were these challenges overcome? 

One major challenge we encountered was that there were no readily available guidelines on manufacturing, quality control and validations.

While manufacturing standards like ISO13485, and validation guidelines like Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) already exist to guide process verification and validation, they are largely focused on conventional diagnostic tests—whereas our test focuses on a single bio-analyte. These guidelines are not readily extendable when the test requires integrating the results from multiple analytes though an algorithm.

To overcome the challenge, we had to interpret the guidelines, identify the essential parameters the guidelines aimed to control and understand how these parameters would manifest through the algorithm. We held a lot of discussion with regulatory affairs and quality assurance to make sure the interpretations are both scientifically sound and compliant.

4. As VP for R&D, can you share with us what factors must be taken into consideration when developing new products? 

The product’s impact is always the first consideration. To understand the impact, it’s always good to ask how a given product can change current clinical practices.

To be impactful, the diagnostic must be actionable—meaning that the information it provides can be used to make the best clinical decisions about care when it is needed the most. The diagnostic must also integrate well with existing the chain of diagnostics. After all, no diagnostic product should exist in vacuum. There are often upstream and downstream diagnostic procedures, so there has to be space to insert a new technology between the different tests to provide enough value.

Also, most diagnostic products are ordered by clinicians, run by lab technicians and tested on patients. Therefore, human factors should also be taken into consideration. A good technology will make a product accessible and robust, so that patients will be more likely to comply with the diagnostic procedure.

There are other factors to consider, including technology feasibility, cost, timeline etc. Eventually we will evaluate the project as whole.

Can you share with us your philosophy when it comes to R&D?

At MiRXES, we aim to shape advanced technology into real-world and life-changing applications. To achieve this, we always work on the following principles:

  • Be bold in adapting new technologies and trying out new ideas
  • Be unrelenting in the search for improvement, including better solutions and more robust products
  • Be strategic in pursuing research goals
  • Finally, always bear in mind the human impact of R&D, as we work to improve the health and wellbeing of people’s lives.
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