Tan Pei Lei, 28, and Chuah Lee Oon, 30, together beat 222 candidates from 24 countries to be among the Young Scientists Awards winners at the International Conference on Beneficial Microbes, which took place this month in Penang.
Tan’s research looked into the use of probiotics in hastening the process of healing. After looking at a vast range of different probiotics, she hit on a strain that could heal wounds 20% faster when it is applied topically.
Chuah’s work, meanwhile, focuses on probiotics that are not resistant to antibiotics to produce food that is safer for consumption.
Probiotics research is a relatively new discipline in Southeast Asia, and the two students are hopeful their work will prompt others to take an interest in the field.
“As Malaysia has already been introduced to probiotics consumption, namely in cultured drinks and yogurt, I thought I should come up with something for external application to speed up the healing process,” said Tan.
"I developed the research over three years by studying about 200 types of good bacteria until I found one which could heal wounds in a short period of time.”
Concerned by the use of some antibiotic-resistant (AR) probiotics in food production, Chuah began to look for strains that were safer for human consumption.
"In general, probiotics have been recognised as safe to be used in food processing but some strains have been found to be resistant to antibiotics, which was worrying, and could make the treatment of some diseases ineffective," she said.
This means easily curable infections could become problematic as treatment becomes difficult or even impossible, leaving the AR bacteria to spread quickly or evolve into a new strain that is harder and more expensive to cure.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-Asia, Professor Min-Tze Liong, who is overseeing the pair’s research, said she hopes Chuah’s study will result in safer products and better awareness among consumers.
“In Malaysia, sadly, many are still not aware of probiotics and their benefits, let alone issues on AR. Her work will hopefully emphasise the importance for consumers to know about AR,” she said, adding that Chuah and Tan were model students.
“They are willing to work the extra long hours in their quest to obtain answers from their scientific queries. Research is never easy and always challenging.
“Hitting walls and being in a dark tunnel without seeing the light, is very common. It does not take a genius to complete a research project to to get a Ph.D. It needs a very tough-robust individual who can take it all and at the same time, remain sane! Thats the tough part.”
The results of Tan and Chuah’s research will not be published for some time, though.
“Although we have the data, we are planning on securing a patent, and depending on the process, this could take up to three years,” Liong said.