The Nyonya who is saving the world from malaria
KUALA LUMPUR, April 12 — At a recent photoshoot by legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz of prominent scientists honoured by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one woman stood out from the rest.
Dr Betty Sim Kim Lee is the president and leading researcher of an organisation working on the development of vaccines for infectious diseases. She is also a Malaysian, a proud Nyonya born and bred in Kota Bharu.
So, how did this small town girl become one of the most important malaria fighters in the world today?
Tell us about your childhood growing up in Kota Bharu.
My childhood was quite idyllic. My father Sim Seng Watt was born in Sibu and was the Organiser of English Schools under the British Empire in Kelantan in the late 1940s. He taught at the Sultan Ismail College (SIC) in Kota Bharu. Everyone called him Cikgu.
My father would go durian “hunting” during the season and I would tag along in the car going to the nearby kampungs where durians and heaps of mangosteens were sold along the roadside. He told me about the various local flora, the nipah palms along the paddy fields, how to recognise a mango tree, all about rubber and how it was tapped.
I would romp around in the rubber plantation that was behind my home collecting seeds that we would play with. My mother taught me how to plant tomatoes and beans in our backyard.
She also showed me how to catch spiders to keep in a match box! I must have learned the love of science and observation of living things at an early age.
I always felt my education in Kota Bharu was strong even though it was thought of as the hinterland of Malaysia. Our teachers at SIC were superb. The curriculum was outstanding. Students were challenged and expected to perform well.
How did you get into tropical medicine and development of vaccines for infectious diseases?
I received a First Class honours in Physiology and a Masters in Physiology at the University of Malaya. I wanted to pursue a PhD, but did not have the financial support to do so. I applied for a World Health Organisation (WHO) Tropical Disease Research (TDR) scholarship to do my PhD at the Department of Malaria and Filariasis at the Institute of Medical Research (IMR).
I was given the opportunity to work with the other prominent scientists at the IMR. I was sent on field studies in Sabah and other areas where we would work all night collecting blood samples from village to village and house to house.
Later I was invited to join Harvard University as a post-doctoral fellow, where I focused on the molecular biology of the worms that cause elephantiasis and other forms of filariasis.
How has your work changed the way in which malaria and other tropical diseases are treated?
I have been working on the development of an effective malaria vaccine since I started my scientific career. I have identified likely target genes, cloned and sequenced genes, and developed them as subunit vaccine candidates based on one or two of the more than 5,000 genes of the malaria parasite. I was always trying to outsmart the malaria parasite, and this led to wonderful scientific discoveries, but not to a highly effective vaccine.
In 2003, I started a vaccine company called Protein Potential LLC. At the same time, my husband Dr Stephen L. Hoffman started Sanaria Inc, a company solely dedicated to developing a malaria vaccine.
Sanaria is developing a whole malaria parasite vaccine, called PfSPZ Vaccine. It is intended to be used to prevent malaria in residents of malaria endemic countries and for travellers and foreign personnel working in malaria-hit regions. Most importantly it is intended to be used to immunise the entire population for malaria elimination campaigns in endemic counties.
We were repeatedly told by almost all of our colleagues that it would be impossible to manufacture a whole sporozoite vaccine. After several years we were successful, and now there is enormous excitement worldwide about our programme since our PfSPZ vaccine approach has shown 100 per cent protection in several studies, one of which has been published in the prestigious scientific journal Science (Seder et al., Science, 2013).
Trials on testing the vaccine are now being conducted in the USA, Europe and Africa. We expect that when our vaccine is licensed and deployed, it will first dramatically reduce and then eliminate the 200 million clinical cases and greater than 550,000 deaths caused by malaria every year.
You and your husband were recently honoured by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Tell us more about that.
We were honoured by being invited participants on The Art of Saving a Life, a BMGF project promoting the value of vaccines. The Art of Saving a Life tells the story of the impact of vaccines on improving child survival and humanity in the past, present and future. We were honoured for our life-long and on-going work on the development of an effective malaria vaccine.
Was there ever pressure to excel in your field, as a Malaysian professional overseas? Or was it more from personal ambition?
There was never pressure from my family or peers. I do not believe that pressure from the outside can generate the passion, dedication, tenacity and commitment that are needed to excel in any field. I am a driven person. It is my nature to be curious. I love a challenge.
After being a scientific researcher for more than 30 years, I am still in awe of the discoveries that can be made upon close and careful investigation. I am proud to identify as a Malaysian, who was able to use my Malaysian upbringing and education to try to make a significant mark on scientific progress in the greater world.
Do you still identify with being a Nyonya after living and working so many years abroad?
I absolutely identify as a Nyonya. Both my paternal grandmother and my maternal grandparents were Peranakan.
My paternal grandmother only spoke Malay and wore “sarong kebaya” every day without her precious “kerosangs”, which would only appear when she was dressing to go out. I remember fondly my paternal grandmother always plastered white “bedak sejuk” on her face after a morning shower.
I love to cook and my family is into food. I learnt to cook some Peranakan dishes from my mother and still serve them at home today. In fact I have thrown a banquet every Chinese New Year where friends gather to cook, talk about and share their family’s most memorable and traditional meals.
Do your children identify with the work you and your husband do?
We have three boys. The eldest Alexander is 35 and is a lawyer, who is our in-house legal counsel for both of our companies. Without his support and legal acumen we would not go very far.
Seth and Ben are 25 and 23 respectively. They are both in medical school. They have always been involved in our work. We often have had visiting scientists and clinicians who are our close friends and collaborators share a meal or stay with us.
The boys would join us at dinner and come with us on trips to the field all over the world, and have conducted scientific research since high school.
Seth and Ben spent a summer during their undergraduate university time and before medical school working on hookworm and malaria near Ende, in a remote site on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Like Steve and me, Seth’s primary interest is in infectious diseases and global health, while Ben is currently focusing on neuroscience and is in an MD/PhD program.
Do your sons see themselves as entirely American or do they also embrace their Peranakan heritage?
The boys are a complete blend of cultures. When they were young, they were surrounded by many languages. They are most intrigued and amused by Manglish and the way Malaysians string Malay, Hokkien and English all together without heed to language structure!
My mother has spent the summers with us for the past 24 years and they grew up with her. They have also visited Kota Bharu many times. In fact Ben is so interested in food and cooking that he took a semester off while at Stanford University a few years ago, to be a student at a chef’s school in Florence, Italy.
In addition to Italian cuisine, he has mastered how to make “rendang” and Singapore laksa, both learnt by painful trial and error in the kitchen. There must have been 20 types of “rending” that he went through before hitting what made him happy!
What inspires you today?
We believe that our PfSPZ Vaccine, a highly effective malaria vaccine, will be available for anyone who needs it, in the near future. This is a statement that makes history. I am living it.
* To learn more about Betty Sim Kim Lee and her work, visit www.sanaria.com. View her photographs by Annie Leibovitz here.