[The Star] Smart partnership to combat illnesses

Andy Chua


Dr Toh showing the Class II Biosafety cabinet where the specimens are processed.

Dr Toh showing the Class II Biosafety cabinet where the specimens are processed.

SIBU: For years, when patients came to Sibu Hospital with severe illnesses including pneumonia and influenza, the medical personnel reports would be in the dark about the cause of their sickness.

With the widespread prevalence of these illnesses but no viral diagnostic capability, the number of patients kept increasing.

It put a strain on the hospital as the doctors and nurses had to work overtime to provide care for the high number of patients until they recover.

If the root cause could be contained, it would reduce the cost of treatment as well as the number of people stricken.

A breakthrough in the fight against these illnesses has been achieved with the setting up of a clinical research centre (CRC) at the hospital.


Prof Mohd Raili says more staff will be recruited to man the lab.

Prof Mohd Raili says more staff will be recruited to man the lab.

For the first time, analyses can be done on virus samples taken from patients between June and August this year and measures taken to prevent the outbreak of these diseases.

The hospital managed to get the Medical Faculty of both SEGi University and US Duke University to forge a partnership on clinical research work for respiratory viruses.

A memorandum of agreement was signed between both parties on Oct 11, where Duke University would provide research and development resources amounting to RM900,000.

SEGi University Medical Faculty Sibu Clinical Campus Prof Dr Mohd Raili Suhaili said the university funded the construction of the laboratory.

The lab was manned by research officer Jakie Ting.

SEGi University is in the process of recruiting more staff for the lab.

In this project, both universities would be monitoring influenza viruses, coronaviruses, adenoviruses and enteroviruses of human or animal origin in medical waiting rooms, open markets, poultry and swine farms, and meat processing plants in Sibu and Kapit.

Duke University sent its first group of six researchers to assist with research work from June to August this year.

They comprised team leader Jane Fieldhouse, Kerry Mallinson, Rick Tsao, Laura Borkenhagen, Sarak Philo (all Masters students) and post-doctorate student Kristen Coleman.

The next group would continue from June to August.


Ting storing the reagent and ingredients in the -20C freezer.

Ting storing the reagent and ingredients in the -20C freezer.

The team works is working to improve understanding of the factors contributing to the spread of respiratory illness, ultimately enhancing preparedness for and even prevention of disease outbreaks in the two towns.

Sibu Hospital CRC head Dr Toh Teck Hock had a positive outlook of the centre and believes money invested in the facilities was meeting its objectives.

The partnership with Duke University, he commented, was a good move as the university is one of the top in the US in terms of clinical research work.

“This partnership is very important as it brings in expertise and knowledge. The exchange programme is helpful for both sides doing research work on the subject,” he said.

As a result of the smart partnership, the hospital has been elevated to the next level of research.

“It is definitely a breakthrough for us. In the past, when people from overseas asked us what viruses were creating problems in Sibu, I would say I have no idea,” he said.

But with the 500 to 600 samples taken from pneumonia, diarrhea and influenza patients in Sibu and Kapit, he can now determine what type of viruses are behind these illnesses.

“The clinical research centre is important as we need to find out whether the type of virus causing respiratory illnesses here are different or the same with the rest of the world and whether our virus is more infectious,” he said.

The lab was a step in the right direction for the team as specimens of the virus can be processed and the results known quickly.

Previously, specimens were sent to Kuching and Kuala Lumpur and sometimes, it was months before the results were made known.

By then, the disease would have affected more people.

After three months of intensive research work, the team has found a new respiratory virus that could shed light on why people are easily infected with diseases.

“This is a new virus and we need to validate it with Duke University,” said Dr Toh, who is a paediatrician at the hospital.

The centre’s main focus for this year is on pneumonia and diarrhea, where in-depth analysis was being conducted “to find out what is affecting patients in the hospital.”

In other words, they want to determine the presence of norovirus in individuals with acute diarrhea and also in farm animals.

As for pneumonia, the research focused on detecting viral aetiology and risk of pneumonia among patients at Sibu and Kapit hospitals from the 300-plus samples of virus.

Influenza virus samples collected by the team were between 10% and 30% of the total samples.

“With God’s blessing, we hope this virus will turn out to be a tame one that will not cause any serious outbreaks.

“From our findings, we know that respiratory virus is quite common among patients,” said Dr Toh.

Dr Toh said CRC Sibu was ready to share their findings with medical authorities worldwide.

“We can also make Sibu one of the centres for research for the rest of the world; for experts to study the types of respiratory viruses found here,” he said.