interviewed by Dr. Wong Kah Keng and Dr. Lee Hooi Ling
Prof. Dr. Jafri Malin Abdullah is no stranger in the Neuroscience arena in Malaysia. He was born in Kuantan, Pahang and is currently based in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Health Campus, Kubang Kerian, Kelantan as a Professor of Neurosciences. He is known as one of the pioneers in introducing and enhancing clinical and experimental neurosciences in Malaysia. He is the founding director for Center for Neuroscience Services and Research (P3Neuro) and the Founding Head of Department of Neurosciences, School Of Medical Sciences in USM. Throughout his career, he has published more than 151 publications and won several local and international awards. In this interview, Prof. Jafri shares his experiences and opinions as a clinical neuroscientist.
Q1. What motivated and inspired you to be a neuroscientist?
When USM sent me to University of Ghent, Belgium, in 1989 to pursue neurosurgery, I had no intention to be a neuroscientist but I was later influenced to be one by my neurosurgeon supervisors, Prof. Dr. Luc Calliauw (MD, PhD). In Europe, especially in university hospitals, it is a norm for every specialist physician to have MD, a specialist and PhD degrees. If we do not obtain our PhD qualification within 5 years of our specialist degree, we would not be accepted to have a pensionable post and “removed’ out of that university. Prof. Calliauw once said to me, “You must be a neuroscientist”, and I replied “I just want to be a neurosurgeon”. His response to my reply was: “No, a neurosurgeon is merely a robot. Without science, you’ll not be able to understand the disease thoroughly and there will be no progress in the treatment of diseases.”
Another aspect that drove me to be a neuroscientist is that science is mandatory in the postings to every clinical department during the postgraduate training in neurosurgery. We had to perform fundamental scientific experiments which must ultimately result in publications. This component brought me closer to science, laboratory, experiments involving animal models and also innovation.
Q2. Upon return to Malaysia, did you focus on neurosurgery, neurosciences or both?
Upon my return to Malaysia in end of 1995, I decided to pursue neurosciences after I completed establishing the neurosurgery and some neurological components at the School of Medical Sciences as well as at the Hospital Universiti Sains Malaysia (HUSM), Kubang Kerian. Once neurosurgery and neurology aspects were established, I then returned to developing neurosciences in 2001. Today, after practising for 25 years, I would say my commitment is roughly 90% neurosciences and 10% neurosurgery.
Q3. What is the main highlight of your research findings?
It would be the development of anti-epileptic drugs ‒ the drugs that we currently use to treat epilepsy were discovered 20 to 30 years ago, thus there is a need for novel anti-epileptic drugs with higher efficacy and less toxicity. To discover novel drugs, we screened chemical compounds isolated from different varieties of plants for anti-epileptic effects. Both in vivo and in vitro experiments were conducted on the identified compounds, and we have found that certain isolated compounds could reduce seizure in rodent models. We hope to bring these compounds into human clinical trials one day, whereby the brain activities of epileptic patients in response to the compounds will be measured.
Q4. What are the strengths that Malaysia can offer in the field of neurosciences?
My colleagues in the West usually approach us for collaborations due to Malaysia’s rich biodiversity. Our neuroscientists should conduct further research on our biodiversity for the identification of novel drugs to treat neurological conditions such as dementia and strokes. One strategy that Malaysian researchers could employ is to collaborate with overseas researchers via a win-win collaboration by providing the compounds isolated from plants or other natural products in Malaysia to facilitate the identification of novel drugs.
Q5. What are the challenges that local neuroscientists face and how should these challenges be overcome?
I have to be honest in addressing this question. A major problem is the “racial segregation”, which is apparent even at the level of the three societies that represent neurosciences in Malaysia, whereby there are separate Chinese majority based, Indian majority based and Malay majority based societies. It is encouraging to have several different societies addressing neurosciences in Malaysia; however, the existence of different societies could result in duplication or overlap in their work, skewed efforts towards a particular subsection of neurosciences and the lack of emphasis to address the nation’s neurological problems as a whole. If we could be united and remove this “invisible barrier” which I know a lot of my neuroscientist colleagues may deny it exists, I really believe that we can produce the quality of research on par with other countries at the international level.
Access to journals should be free-of-charge so that any researchers, especially those from the poorest of countries, are able to access them
Secondly, there are no local grants specially dedicated to the fields of fundamental neurosciences. If you look at most of the major grant applications, there is little or no room for the neurosciences field as we know exist in developed countries. Last year, President Obama of the United States launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative to propel neurosciences research in the US and European Union’s Human Brain Project. This massive initiative has finally motivated different levels of Malaysian scientific bodies to meet and plan funding opportunities for neuroscientists. However, neuroscience researchers will still have to wait two to three years for its implementation before they can apply for such grants. This is frustrating especially for young and energetic neuroscientists returning to Malaysia from their overseas studies or training. This needs to be addressed before we lose even more talents.
Q6. As the Founding Director for the Center for Neuroscience Services and Research (P3Neuro), can you tell us more about the center?
In brief, the center provides advanced neurological, neurosurgical and psychiatric treatment to patients as well as functioning as a storage bank for patient samples such as tissue, blood and DNA samples. The library of patient samples and relevant electrophysiology data generated by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), magnetoencephalography (MEG) and electroencephalography (EEG) techniques can be used for research on the treatment and understanding of the disease. We have signed a memorandum with Universiti Teknologi Petronas to utilise their advanced computing technologies for the efficient storage of patients’ electrophysiology data, which usually occupy huge amount of digital spaces, as well as scientific collaborations with the Cuban Neuroscience Center, International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility (INCF) and the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics, USA (SBMT) to promote large scale brain mapping. These are of course done with human ethics committee approval and the patients’ names are kept anonymous.
Q7. Can you tell us about your role as an editor of open access journals?
My job scope is to choose suitable peer reviewers for the neurosciences articles sent to me by the respective authors and to see through that the articles being reviewed to their final publication or rejection. It is a lot of work, and all of us on the editorial board do not get paid a single cent ‒ we are doing it from the kindness of our hearts because access to journals should be free-of-charge so that any researchers, especially those from the poorest of countries, are able to access them without any financial boundaries.
Q8. Finally, what are the most stressing issues that both the Malaysian government and neuroscientists need to address in order to improve the local research arena?
The government should establish the core facilities at different parts of Malaysia. The new facilities should not just be based in Kuala Lumpur with much less emphasis on other regions in Malaysia. Secondly, scientists need to be mobile ‒ if they are working in Kuala Lumpur, they should be capable of working or collaborating with researchers in Kota Bharu or other places in Malaysia. The passion to find scientific answers should not be limited by geographical locations.
Bigger science funding is absolutely crucial – our funding for scientific research compared to the country’s GDP is hugely imbalanced
Thirdly, bigger science funding is absolutely crucial ‒ our funding for scientific research compared to the country’s GDP is hugely imbalanced. Take a look at developed countries, their funding for science is a significant proportion of their countries’ GDP. Fortunately, the government is working on the Akta Sains Negara (National Science Act), and we hope that it will be tabled in the Parliament soon and when implemented, there will be more emphasis and more job opportunities for scientists. This would encourage the young generations to take up fundamental and applied sciences as their basic degree and work up till they receive their PhDs knowing that there will always job securities, promotions and rewards at the end of the road.
There are very few neuroscientists in Malaysia; according to 2011 UNESCO Institute of Statistics data , we had five scientists per 1,000 workforce whereas in Singapore, there were 13 scientists for the same number of workforce. Ideally, our universities should focus on developing more neurosciences programme to fuel the growth of this field. In addition, our children in Malaysia, less than 30% of them are interested in science  ‒ that is science as a whole, and we are not talking about neurosciences yet! Neuroscientists, and scientists in general, need to be more outspoken and reach out to the press or the public to encourage emphasis on science in our country. Science generates innovations and economic growths in every developed country; I don’t see why we can’t do the same.
 Abdullah JM. Neurosciences in Universiti Sains Malaysia; The Way to Go Forward in Malaysia with Vision 2020. MJMS. 2005;12:1-3
 Jayarajah K et al. A Review of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Research from 1999-2013: A Malaysian Perspective. EJMSTE. 2014;10:155-63.