Renzhe Bi, a Senior Scientist at A*STAR’s Institute of Bioengineering and Bioimaging (IBB) and a recipient of the 2022 Young Scientist Award in the Biological & Biomedical Sciences Category, believes in the power of curiosity, courage and compassion.
For Bi, the first step to doing good research is to be curious. His journey in biophotonics—or the application of light-based technologies in medicine and life sciences—began with him being intrigued at how light can help us monitor brain activity. From there, his curiosity led him to study other ways bio-optical technologies can be used in the lab and the clinic—from monitoring blood flow through capillary networks, to measuring the potential long-term health risks among patients with COVID-19.
The second component of good research is courage, Bi says. He recounts having to overcome many obstacles and go through rounds of trial and error in his efforts to translate his laboratory findings into biomedical applications. To date, Bi has 11 patent applications and counting, with three granted patents already assigned or licensed to Singapore-based Medtech companies. Having the determination to reach the finish line may be important, but it also takes courage to figure out whether it is time to stop and refocus one’s efforts on other projects, Bi notes.
The third and last component is compassion—for both patients and collaborators. Bi highlights its importance when translating biophotonics technology from bench to bedside, as it allows researchers to best meet patients' needs while also solving real-world challenges faced by the healthcare professionals caring for them. For instance, in a collaboration with the National University Hospital, Bi is working with oncologists and radiologists to test a hybrid system for breast-cancer risk clarification. His invention, which combines photoacoustic and ultrasound imaging, aims to significantly reduce false positive diagnoses.
In this interview with A*STAR Research, Bi talks about developing novel spectroscopy systems, overcoming challenges in translational research, and following one's guiding values as a researcher.
Q: What first sparked your interest in biophotonics?
During my undergraduate degree, I interned at the Britton Chance Center for Biomedical Photonics in Wuhan’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology. There, a professor explained to us how to use light to monitor brain activity, and it piqued my interest. When I received a PhD offer from Nanyang Technological University Singapore, I decided to look for a group that worked on bio-optical research, which is how I found Professor Kijoon Lee.
After I joined his lab, I discovered that I deeply enjoyed bio-optical research, and I knew that I had made the right choice. We went on to collaborate with Tan Tock Seng Hospital clinicians on blood perfusion monitoring. Seeing my technology being used and appreciated by surgeons gave me a great sense of accomplishment.
Q: What is the process of developing new spectroscopy systems like?
Developing an optical spectroscopy system starts with knowing your purpose—it helps you identify the specifications you will need, which can be tricky because some requirements are not compatible with each other. For example, it is hard to achieve both high resolution and deep penetration in one system, so you will need to decide which critical parameters to prioritise. From there, you will need to simulate and test sub-modules, which you can assemble into an optimised full system.
The entire process involves optical design, mechanical design and a lot of experience in system integration. Normally, it would take three to four iterations to build a reliable system.
Q: How can your work impact how skin disorders and diseases are treated?
I developed a non-invasive device that measures chemical components in the skin through optical spectroscopy. By using different properties of light to measure the concentration of different chemical components, we can derive an index to quantify skin barrier function—quantitative and objective information that can help clinicians make accurate diagnostic and treatment decisions.
Q: How do you overcome challenges in designing biomedical devices for commercial use?
I have three patented inventions, which have all been assigned or licensed to Singapore-based medtech companies and tested on patients globally. Along the way, my team met various challenges.
For example, some ideas may work well in a lab but cannot be translated into medical devices easily, such as high-power lasers. We had to find alternative ways to reduce the optical power requirements while maintaining the same performance. Some designs might also be too sophisticated to work outside of the lab, so we had to design simpler and more robust approaches. These types of challenges are overcome by a lot of trial and error.
However, some challenges cannot be overcome. In those cases, we need to make the difficult decision of whether to continue commercial development or refocus our efforts towards something more feasible.
Q: Can you tell us about an exciting project your lab is working on now? Why is collaboration important in healthcare research?
We are developing medical-grade wearable devices that can be used to assess lower-limb vein health. These devices will help patients with chronic venous problems improve their quality of life.
For projects like these, collaboration is important as we work with clinicians and healthcare providers to better understand real-world problems and find solutions for them. If our research cannot be used by healthcare professionals, then our efforts—and a lot of resources—would be wasted.
Q: What do awards like the Young Scientist Award mean to you? How do such accolades benefit you and your lab?
I feel greatly honoured to receive this award. There are many talented young researchers in Singapore, and I consider myself to be a very lucky one.
Currently, I am working at the Translational Biophotonics Laboratory in A*STAR, which provides a fantastic environment and lots of support for my research. Singapore’s investment in laboratories like this and researchers like me shows that the country is serious about supporting clinical translational research. This recognition encourages me to continue working towards improving healthcare outcomes, and hopefully start more collaborations with other labs and clinicians.
Q: What advice do you have for students interested in STEM?
Good research starts with curiosity, moves forward with courage and always involves compassion for others. It is important for us as researchers to be driven, to care for people and to be generous with our knowledge. Outcomes are rarely immediate, but if we keep doing good work, we’ll eventually make a meaningful impact.