FOR his final-year project in engineering studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Dr Alvin Chua worked on a biomaterial project that sparked unrelenting passion for his current job.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in engineering with second class upper honours in 1998, he continued working on the same project. Two years later, he received his master’s degree in engineering.

He worked as a process engineer in the semiconductor sector for two years. At that time, the demand in the biomedical field had yet to develop, but he was keen on pursuing it.

In 2002, he joined the health-care sector after seeing a newspaper advertisement for a job opportunity with the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

The 40-year-old is now senior principal scientific officer in charge of the Skin Bank and Skin Culture Laboratory in the SGH Burns Centre.

This is a highly specialised facility that provides donor skin and patients’ own cultured skin for the treatment of severe burn injuries.

Improving wound healing

The multi-disciplinary team at the Burns Centre comprises doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, dietitians, pharmacists, medical social workers, transplant coordinators and those like Dr Chua, who are laboratory-based.

He works with plastic and burn surgeons, nurses, quality assurance executives and fellow scientists and technologists to provide safe and cutting-edge skin transplants.

He says: “The working environment is a dynamic one where everyone tries his best to contribute to the welfare of burn patients, directly or indirectly.

“Indeed, in this team, you can feel the hospital’s motto, ‘Patients. At the Heart of All We Do’.”

He is also involved in research to improve wound healing using stem cells and tissue engineering technologies.

“I love what I’m doing now because I’m placed in a unique situation of being in the clinical setting to help burn patients through the preparation of skin grafts.

“At the same time, I’m given the opportunity to lead and be in the research setting to improve patients’ outcomes,” he says.

“Seeing severe burn patients survive and recover as a result of the efforts from the multi-disciplinary team, and knowing that our laboratory unit is part of it, makes it all worthwhile.”

Between 2002 and 2003, SGH sent him to Shriners Burns Institute in the United States and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland for further training on skin banking and the optimal use of stem cells in skin culture for the treatment of severe burns.

Two years ago, he completed his PhD in biomedical science specialising in skin scarring at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine in NUS.

Skin culture and transplants

A major challenge in his work is dealing with insufficient local skin donations that can help severely burnt patients tide over a very critical period after all their burn tissues are removed.

The donated skin used to cover the injuries is a life-saving procedure as it protects from infection.

Besides processing or growing skin in the clinical laboratory with the help of technologists, Dr Chua and his team also work in the operating theatre to ensure the smooth grafting of the skin transplants.

On quieter days — when there are no clinical cases and he has completed most of the operational and quality aspects of the unit — Dr Chua will be in the research laboratory doing cell cultures and wound healing experiments with the help of collaborators and attachment students.

He also keeps up with the recent trends of regenerative medicine through the reading of current literature and writing papers to report any findings.

Occasionally, he spends his weekends at work as he has to return to the laboratory to maintain the cell cultures for patient or research purposes.

He says: “Primary cell culture work is really blind to working days or non-working days. If the cells happen to be ready for testing or harvesting, you will have to be there.

 “Otherwise, you will have to start all over, which can set you back by up to three weeks. Sometimes, it’s not easy as I juggle between taking care of my family and work.

“I’m thankful for a supportive family, especially the sacrifice made by my wife.”

He hopes his contributions will improve the outcome for patients.

He says: “I do hope some of our research in regenerative medicine can be quickly translated into clinical applications.

“After all, I’m still an engineer at heart.”