Journey to conquer genetic scientific works

Tuesday, 2018-03-20 10:45:15
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Young doctor Tran Van Khanh is one of the two winners of the 2017 Kovalevskaia Award.
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NDO – Twenty nine researches, which have been born and applied in practice over the course of just 12 years, are the fruits of the tireless scientific passion of Assoc. Prof, Dr. Tran Van Khanh, Deputy Director of Gen-Protein Research Centre under the Hanoi Medical University. The young doctor is one of the two winners of the prestigious 2017 Kovalevskaia Award.

>>> Two female associate professors honoured with 2017 Kovalevskaia Award

Wholehearted devotion from pain

Hours before the award ceremony of the 2017 Kovalevskaia Award early this March, Assoc. Prof. Tran Van Khanh was still busy in her lab with test results and research drafts. Her phone rang continuously as her colleagues, students and patients asked for advice on the results of pathological examinations.

Looking at the little woman, calm in her white blouse, many could not imagine that she is the "mother" of the "hard" work related to genetic diseases and genetics.

After graduating from the School of Medicine, Kobe University (Japan), in 1996, Dr. Khanh decided to return home and worked in the field of molecular pathology research at the Gen-Protein Research Centre (Hanoi Medical University), setting aside the regret of her relatives and colleagues on her missing out on the opportunity to stay abroad to do science. That decision also marked the beginning of 12 years of hard work and dedication to science by the young scientist.

Talking about her work, the humble female assoc. prof. said that it only originated from empathy with ... pain. From an obsession born out of witnessing a lot of healthy babies becoming weakened and paralysed before eventually dying of an unknown cause, Dr. Khanh began her study of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in earnest.

"It is one of the most common genetic diseases in Vietnam but there is no cure. People with this disease are mostly men. The disease will cause muscle weakness and make travel difficult. Patients gradually lose their ability to move at age 12. They are usually likely to die at age 20 due to myocardial damage and respiratory disorders. It’s painful," Dr. Khanh said.

In 2006, after her research on developing gene therapy for DMD was recognised and applied in practice, thousands of DMD cases have been detected for early intervention during pregnancy. Their relatives carrying the disease gene have also been diagnosed early and given directions to intervene.

With unceasing efforts, in just 12 years, the doctor completed 29 State-level and ministerial level research projects, while publishing 170 scientific papers at home and abroad. Not only completing successful research on DMD, the female assoc. prof. and her colleagues continue to expand their research on several other common genetic diseases in Vietnam, such as muscle degeneration, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, bony anomaly, hemophilia A, Wilson, thalassemia, retinoblastoma, congenital glaucoma, and G6PD enzyme deficiency. With the results obtained, maps of the mutant genes of various diseases in Vietnamese patients were initially announced.

Long days without tiredness

Dr. Tran Van Khanh is the first Vietnamese person to successfully implement gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy at the cellular level.

Talking about her career memories, Dr. Khanh mentioned a case of a female patient named N. T. M. in Bac Giang province. M. inherited hemophilia A genetic disease (bleeding disorder) from his father. The disease is very dangerous to the survival of the person carrying the disease when encountering any minor injuries.

M.'s family also witnessed many family members pass away at an early age because of the disease. After getting married, M. always desired to have a child but she did not dare to get pregnant for the fear of pain and without money to cure her disease. Dr. Khanh put her on the list of support for pre-implantation genetic screening for patients with hereditary diseases.

The doctor also had to directly select the gene in the embryo during in vitro fertilisation for M. and her husband. Previously, Vietnamese couples had to travel to Thailand to perform this technique at quite a large cost worth several hundred million dong. After many challenges, joy came to M.’s family when two healthy children were born. Dr. Khanh said that the joy of the young couple created a great motivation for her to firmly continue on her research journey.

Not only researching genetic diseases, Dr. Khanh has also participated in many other studies on the molecular mechanisms of cancer, cardiovascular disease and infectious diseases. All of these studies have helped Vietnamese doctors to give accurate diagnosis and treatment, as well as the most effective disease monitoring.

To complete the huge workload, Dr. Khanh revealed that not only she but also her family, husband and children sacrificed a lot. "I often have to go to work early and come home very late. I rarely have dinner with my children. They often called me and say "we made an omelette and eat first", because I did not arrive home early to make dinner for them. Some days, at 8-9 pm, my husband was still waiting for me to join the dinner. He does not blame me but sympathises and encourages me very much," Dr. Khanh shared.

As one of the two winners of the prestigious Kovalevskaia Award this year, for Dr. Khanh, the biggest award in her scientific life is seeing healthy and happy children free of inherited diseases.

"In the future, I would like to delve into rare genetic diseases and complete the profile on hereditary diseases in Vietnam. I know a lot of difficulties are still ahead, especially for a woman doing science like me, but I believe that people with passion will definitely find "good soil" to sow successful seeds,” Dr. Khanh affirmed.

The Kovalevskaia Award, named after the major Russian female mathematician Sophia Kovalevskaia, has been presented to female scientists in Vietnam in the field of natural sciences since 1985. So far, 17 collectives and 48 individuals have been awarded with the noble prize for their outstanding scientific achievements in the fields of mathematics, chemistry, biology, medicine and agriculture.