Research Personality: Dr. Lee Han Lim

Dr. Lee Han Lim first started as a Medical Entomologist (Research Officer) in the Unit of Medical Entomology, Institute for Medical Research (IMR) in 1978 before being appointed Head of the Unit in 1993 and Head of WHO Collaborating Centre for Vectors. He obtained a Masters of Science (Medical Entomology) from Universiti Sains Malaysia before graduating with a PhD in this field. Dr. Lee is also a former Dean of School of Diploma in Applied Parasitology & Entomology from 2004 to 2011. He retired in 2011 and was re-employed under contract between 2011 and 2016.

His main research is in vector biology and control, with a research interest in Dengue, Zika and Chikungunya vectors, re-emerging and exotic vectors, microbial control agents, insecticide resistance, forensic entomology, maggot debridement therapy, transgenic mosquito, Wolbachia and sterile insect technique. He has a list of major achievements during his tenure at IMR with a long list of “Firsts” in research accomplishments. To date, he has a total of 315 scientific publications, 159 theses/reports/proceedings/guidelines, 512 paper presentations in seminars, 64 major research grants, 19 patents filed/granted and 9 commercialised/pre-commercialised products.

What are the important roles played by the Entomology Unit at IMR and what is its research focused on?
The Medical Entomology Unit was established in 1902 with the appointment of the first entomologist at the Institute for Medical Research. Various researches on insect-borne diseases have been carried out here for more than 11 decades on vector biology and control of insects and their relationship to diseases. Many of the techniques of control and suppression of disease-bearing insects used in today’s modern era, originated from this Unit. Medical Entomology Unit plays four important roles: Research, Training, Diagnosis and Advisory / Consultancy. Since 1985 and to date, the Unit is designated as the WHO Collaborating Centre for Ecology, Taxonomy & Control of Vectors of Malaria, Filariasis and Dengue.

How has the research environment/ecosystem evolved from the time you joined IMR up until your retirement?
When I first joined the Unit in 1978, the research scenario was in a state of transition. Malaria and filariasis were no more major public health issues and in the process of being eradicated, while dengue had gradually spread nationwide and the scale of dengue outbreaks were slowly but surely gaining public health significance. During these ensuing years, advances in biotechnology, especially molecular biology were explosive and their application in biomedical sciences, such as research in vectors, was rapid and gaining speed. In addition, during this period, we also saw the Government’s new policies in R&D, which came with many folds of increase in funding and expansion of research scopes in many areas, inclusive of biomedical fields. It was a golden era for researchers, really, because our only limitations were to generate innovative ideas!

Can you describe two research projects which you were involved in and its impact in the medical field. I have been the Principal Investigator in more than 100 research projects. Below are two examples of important past research:

  1. Maggot Debridement Therapy (MDT) – using sterile (microbial free) fly maggots to debride (clean) wounds is not new and used since time immemorial. It is an accepted clinical practice in modern medicine, especially since the emergence of antibiotic resistance. In the West, the temperate fly Lucilia sericata is used, but in the tropics, like in Malaysia, only another species, Lucilia cuprina is present, but no study was ever conducted to test its possible use in MDT. We therefore developed maggot sterilizing techniques, and conducted clinical trials which proved this species was as effective as the temperate species. Subsequently MDT is now introduced and used in 52 hospitals in Malaysia, mainly to debride diabetic wounds. So far, we have treated more than 4000 patients, mostly diabetics and in many cases limb amputation is avoided.
  2. Forensic Entomology Research – This involved the use of maggots from corpse to determine the post-mortem interval (time of dead), cause of death and place of death. Such evidence is accepted by court of law. We conducted large scale study using monkey carcasses in all known ecotypes in Malaysia and collected & identified many types of forensic flies. These voluminous data are widely used in forensic cases. So far, we have provided assistance to police investigation in more than 700 cases and identified thousands of forensic flies.

In your opinion, why is it important for IMR to work collaboratively with the MOH and universities?
While collaboration in research has been an integral part of research, in the past, the nature of collaboration was conducted within departments/disciplines/institution. However, increasing complexity in research questions necessitates partnership across departments/disciplines/institution (e.g. university, ministry). Such form of collaboration is more likely to generate innovative ideas and breakthroughs, and solutions to new, complex and convoluted fields of research. Collaboration is beneficial to participating parties, in term of funding, expanded capability, division of labour, sharing of resources and technological advances, intellectual property and publications.

In the field of research, where do you wish to see Malaysia in the next 10 years?
The present policies in science and trend of research will shape the future position of Malaysian in scientific research in the decade to come. Presently, we are still a nation more on acquiring and using technologies researched and developed by others, and less on generating new knowledge and groundbreaking technologies. If we were to be on par with the technologically advanced nations of the world in future, it is pertinent to invest heavily in basic and fundamental research, as well as translational research.