Sanjay Chotirmall

A globally-recognised clinician-scientist, Prof. Sanjay H. Chotirmall is Assistant Professor of Molecular Medicine, Nanyang Technological University, Principal Investigator, Translational Respiratory Research Laboratory, Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore and Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer, Imperial College London.

He completed his Undergraduate studies at RCSI in 2005 and returned to complete a PhD which he gained in 2012.

"I have a motto that I’ve learned from my mentors: 'Research exists for patients, not vice versa', and this must be kept in mind as we take questions derived at the bedside and answer them at the bench."

Following my PhD in RCSI, I returned to Singapore and joined the faculty at LKCMedicine to establish a Translational Respiratory Research group with focus on infection, inflammation and immunity in the context of chronic inflammatory respiratory diseases that affect Asian populations.

My lab is fully translational with my research informed by questions that are clinically relevant and determined from the bedside. We then perform well-designed experiments that use bench-based technologies to link directly back to the bedside and influence patient care. I have a motto that I’ve learned from my mentors: 'Research exists for patients, not vice versa' and this must be kept in mind as we take questions derived at the bedside and answer them at the bench.

Career path

I was born in Mumbai, but my father moved us to Singapore before I was one year old. I finished my international baccalaureate and military service (mandatory for males in Singapore), and knew all along I wanted to do medicine. I was interviewed by RCSI in Kuala Lumpur over 20 years ago now and enrolled in RCSI, Dublin, graduating in 2005.

By awarding me the gold medal in microbiology and publishing in the New England Journal of Medicine during my time at RCSI, I can confidently say that RCSI clearly inspired my career trajectory.

My specialist career then took on a specific focus in 2007 when I was awarded a prestigious Molecular Medicine Ireland Clinician Scientist Fellowship, during which I completed a PhD investigating the role of oestrogen in cystic fibrosis (CF). We knew that female CF patients did less well than males (an observation at the bedside), so I studied the effect of sex hormones on CF, particularly the role of oestrogen, a clear difference between the genders, at the bench. Knowing that the oral contraceptive pill suppresses endogenous oestrogen, we also looked at those CF patients on the pill and compared them with those not on it and noticed that the patients on the pill required far less antibiotics. I found the plight of CF patients in Ireland very hard to swallow. They were dying of a condition that, at the time of this research, we could do little about.

The future of learning

My role at LKCMedicine and also at Imperial College London means I am part of a very innovative teaching programme that employs a team-based learning pedagogy. I participate as an investigator for key multi-centre clinical trials in the field of respiratory medicine and continue to teach undergraduates and postgraduates at both bench and bedside.

I have editorial roles at the key respiratory journals, including the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the European Respiratory Journal, BMC Pulmonary Medicine, the American Journal of Physiology-Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology, Respirology and PLos One. I am sincerely appreciative of the opportunities afforded to me to speak regularly at national and international meetings. The burden of respiratory disease is significant all over the world. Air quality is a big issue and, in Asia, it is particularly variable. Winning national and international grants has allowed me focus on research, alongside my clinical work.

I believe the world is entering a fourth industrial revolution, with artificial intelligence (AI) a major player in medical machine learning processes that will in the future aid the interpretation of biopsies, scans and other tests. In the future, physicians will need a new way of learning (and medical teaching), one that preserves the involvement of the human touch, while keeping abreast of the latest technologies including multi-omics applications for precision medicine.

The question for me is how can we use digital health approaches to deliver the best care for patients without losing the human aspects of medicine, such as compassion, which is so important.

What's next?

I have two main goals: the first to improve the health and quality of life of patients; and the second, to train and mentor the next generation of clinician scientists to continue the work we are doing long after I’m done.

At RCSI, I received an excellent education, delivered in a very robust way. We were very well trained by really good people. I learned in an environment with a global outlook, yet it was a genuinely warm and friendly place to be.

RCSI was importantly where I met my beautiful wife, Amandeep! We both love to go back to Ireland and RCSI and especially miss it at Christmas when the temperature here is 35 degrees Celsius!

Sanjay Chotirmall and his family