Associate Professor Aw Swee Eng’s keenness for research and curiosity about how things work led to his appointment as the first head of SGH’s nuclear medicine unit.
He was fond of “blowing
things up” and experimented
with self-made gunpowder,
with shop-bought everyday
materials. The young boy
went to a concrete bridge
in his hometown of Kampar, in Malaysia’s
Perak province, to see how well it worked.
When lit, his explosive powder did
not quite go off with a bang but gave off
a subdued “voom!”.
Recalling that he was “crafty” enough
not to get caught, the now-84-year-old
Associate Professor Aw Swee Eng, Emeritus
Consultant, Department of Nuclear
Medicine and Molecular Imaging, Singapore
General Hospital (SGH), noted that it
was his keen interest in biochemistry and
strong sense of curiosity to find out how
things work that led to the episode of
Many years later, those qualities would
stand him in good stead. His reputation for
teaching biochemistry to medical students
in an engaging and relevant manner, and
interest in research, reached the ears of
the late Dr Kwa Soon Bee, then charged
with transforming and modernising the
healthcare sector. Dr Kwa, who was Medical
Director of SGH (1972-1984) and Permanent
Secretary of Health (1984-1996), convinced
Assoc Prof Aw to start and head Singapore’s
first nuclear medicine unit at SGH.
“I was not trained as a nuclear
medicine person. But I like challenges,”
said Assoc Prof Aw.
It would be a specialised unit that takes
Singapore medicine a step further, using
sophisticated radioimmunoassay (RIA)
equipment to analyse blood samples.
Established as the Department of
Nuclear Medicine in 1980, the department
grew quickly, with increasingly complex
procedures added to its range of activities.
It started with 40 types of RIA tests and
a few technetium-99 scans, as well as
radioactive iodine to treat hyperthyroidism.
Today, even more kinds of various
radioactive materials are used for diagnosis
and therapy. Injected into the blood, they emit
very fine rays captured on state-of-the-art
SPECT (single-photon emission computed
tomography) or PET (positron emission
tomography) machines to measure the cells’
metabolic activity. Besides diagnosis, nuclear
medicine procedures also offer targeted
radionuclide therapy for difficult-to-treat and
advanced cancers. Radioactive drugs seek out
and bind themselves to cancer cells, before
delivering a high-dose of radiation to kill the
malignant cells and sparing healthy ones.
To date, the avid researcher has
published close to 80 papers in local and
international refereed journals. “I was
interested in antigen, antibody reaction and
immunology,” said Assoc Prof Aw.
He also promoted the research culture
in SGH in the early days, and served as the
hospital’s first Director of the Department
of Clinical Research from 1989 to 2009. This
became an early platform to kick-start the
research careers and achievements of many
doctors and staff, including Singapore’s
leading clinician-scientists, who have gone
on to receive many prestigious accolades and
achieve national and international recognition
for their research.
Assoc Prof Aw was Chairman of the SGH
Institutional Review Board (IRB) from 1993
to 2009 and subsequently the SingHealth
Centralised IRB for another six years, as well
as Chairman of A*STAR IRB since 2017.
He is well loved and respected by his
staff, not least for his keen sense of humour,
but also his humility and concern for others.
Some of the work of his department and that
of Pathology were similarly concerned with
diagnosis of blood samples, and he envisaged
that some RIA tests would eventually be
moved to Pathology. Over the years since
then, the department has continued to
grow and develop new areas of radionuclide
imaging and therapy for patient care, and
is currently one of the most recognised
centres for nuclear medicine and theranostics
(therapeutics and diagnostics) in the region.
The spunky boy matured into a deeply
religious man, conducting and recording bible
studies and courses at his church. The father
of two — both in healthcare — and grandfather
of three wanted to teach at one time. But his
interest in the broader questions about life
pulled him in a different direction. Lauded
for his life’s work in the specialty, and possibly
deemed as Singapore’s Father of Nuclear
Medicine, Assoc Prof Aw was bestowed the
esteemed title of Emeritus Consultant this year.
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