Thai wins Newton Prize for study of rare childhood diseases

A researcher at Chulalongkorn University was named last week as one of five winners of the prestigious Newton Prize for his work in studying the molecular pathology of rare genetic diseases found in children in Thailand’s rural areas, while another Thai researcher was given the Chairman’s Award for her study of diseases in shrimps.

The United Kingdom’s Newton Fund awarded one of its five prizes to Professor Vorasuk  Shoterelersuk, 48, from the Center of Excellence for Medical Genetics at Chulalongkorn University. He worked in collaboration with Professor Philip Beales of the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. The victory earned the project a grant of £200,000 ($269,614) in additional funding.

Four other prizes went to researchers in India, Malaysia and Viet Nam.

The prize underscores Thailand’s growing prowess in research and development, and innovation. The Kingdom’s 20-year national development plan Thailand 4.0 aims to expand and deepen innovation and research and development as a means of advancing the country’s economy and society.

The Newton Fund is part of the U.K.’s official development assistance. The prizes are awarded to activities that demonstrate that they are “aiming to contribute to a reduction in poverty, and aim to further sustainable development or improve the welfare of the population of Newton Fund countries,” according to the Fund’s website.

The research conducted by Prof. Vorasuk “solved around 100 undiagnosed cases of rare genetic diseases in children,” the Fund said in a press release. Vorasuk said he had become concerned with the growing number of diseases afflicting children and others in rural areas of the Kingdom. These diseases were rarely documented in medical literature and so remained mysterious, he said.

“I am very grateful to our patients who inspire us and give us good research questions. It has given us many opportunities to further understand medical biology while paving the way for new and important research,” Vorasuk said.

According to the Fund, about 8 percent of the Thai population suffers from rare genetic diseases, and when those people seek medical help the average period to investigate their cases and find a diagnosis or solution is seven years.

“The Molecular Pathology of Rare Genetic Diseases in Children project, supported Chulalongkorn pediatrics to develop their own genomics and supporting analytics and infrastructure, which has translated into patient benefit by solving undiagnosed cases through the sequencing, analysis and diagnosis of children with debilitating disorders,” the Fund said.

“Timely diagnosis can mean improved healthcare and better life outcomes. As well as supporting the patients and their parents, and informing treatments, the collaboration has also enabled genetic counseling and prenatal diagnoses for families at risk. Improved diagnoses and clinical management will drive significant savings across the Thai health system,” the Fund said.

In addition, a“Chairman’s Award” went to Kallaya Sritunyalucksana, 48, from the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology for her research into the International Network for Shrimp Health.

“Shrimp farming is a major economic activity in Asia, generating millions of jobs and supporting rural communities. Periodic and unpredictable massive production drops occur in shrimp due to disease, resulting in severe economic losses,” the Fund said.

“The International Network for Shrimp Health (INSH), co-designed new paradigms to secure the global aquatic food chains between producer nations such as Thailand, and consumer nations. The project is applying cutting edge technologies for ‘point of need’ diagnostics, smartphone reporting systems for field data and developing disruptive technologies for reporting disease,” the Fund said.