A Policy Pioneer

color = "#FFB459"; A Policy Pioneer Yongyuth Yuthavong is not your ordinary biochemist. By Klomjit Chandrapanya © Tatree Saengme-Anuparb Holding 7,000 Thai baht (about $300) in his hands, Yongyuth Yuthavong had an epiphany. It was the late 1960s and he was a fresh-faced researcher, back in Thailand with a doctorate degree from Oxford, and about to embark on his own research project studying enzymes from papaya. The research

Klomjit Chandrapanya
Jan 12, 2010

A Policy Pioneer

Yongyuth Yuthavong is not your ordinary biochemist.

© Tatree Saengme-Anuparb

Holding 7,000 Thai baht (about $300) in his hands, Yongyuth Yuthavong had an epiphany. It was the late 1960s and he was a fresh-faced researcher, back in Thailand with a doctorate degree from Oxford, and about to embark on his own research project studying enzymes from papaya. The research grant from the National Research Council of Thailand was small, but the council had little to give. The process of obtaining even this tiny amount involved using connections and powers-that-be to push the proposal through. Eventually, a government employee counted out and handed Yongyuth 70 one-hundred baht bills.

“I was a bit bewildered. There really was no system to govern any of it. I knew then that if I were to just keep to my lab I would be of little help to Thailand,” says the vibrant 66-year-old...

© Tatree Saengme-Anuparb

Holding 7,000 Thai baht (about $300) in his hands, Yongyuth Yuthavong had an epiphany. It was the late 1960s and he was a fresh-faced researcher, back in Thailand with a doctorate degree from Oxford, and about to embark on his own research project studying enzymes from papaya. The research grant from the National Research Council of Thailand was small, but the council had little to give. The process of obtaining even this tiny amount involved using connections and powers-that-be to push the proposal through. Eventually, a government employee counted out and handed Yongyuth 70 one-hundred baht bills.

“I was a bit bewildered. There really was no system to govern any of it. I knew then that if I were to just keep to my lab I would be of little help to Thailand,” says the vibrant 66-year-old Yongyuth.

Thus, the biochemist decided to use his energy and talent to assist his country so that other scientists could more easily follow in his footsteps. He pursued a dual-track career in scientific research and policy making, and was a part of the team that established the Ministry of Science and Technology in 1979. He wrote a three-page proposal that set up the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) in 1983, and drafted the legislation that would create the Thailand Research Fund in 1992. When he became Minister of Science and Technology in 2006, he tried unsuccessfully to raise the level of R&D funding to one percent of GDP. He did, however, help set up the National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Office dedicated to science policy development.

One of the reasons why Yongyuth has remained vigilant in establishing efficient, clear, and transparent systems for researchers may have to do with his prolific career in the lab, especially his work on malaria parasites. Malaria is one of the world’s most common and serious tropical diseases, causing nearly one million deaths each year, mostly among young children under 5 years of age. According to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, almost half the world’s population is at risk for malaria, and the situation is getting worse because of poor health systems as well as growing drug and insecticide resistance, among other reasons.

In 2003, Yongyuth and his team discovered the structure of the malaria parasite enzyme DHFR, which enables it to become drug resistant—a finding that was met with much excitement. This breakthrough has led to new directions in designing effective antimalarial drugs that directly target the enzyme. Today, Yongyuth, officially BIOTEC’s senior research fellow and advisor, leaves most of the lab work to his colleagues and focuses on planning and providing guidance. One of the drugs developed by his Thai team is at the advanced preclinical trial phase.

“We should be so proud. It’s the first time Thais have developed a drug that has reached this level. We used to only conduct clinical trials using other people’s products.”

Yongyuth is also one of a handful of members of the scientific board of the Grand Challenges in Global Health (GCGH) who is from a developing country. GCGH, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is focused on discovering and developing new ideas to fight major global health problems that may be neglected by large pharmaceutical companies. Ever the cheerleader for new scientists and small science, Yongyuth is even more excited about GCGH’s new initiative called the Grand Challenges Explorations, which awards smaller grants and is more accessible to smaller-scale scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Two BIOTEC researchers have already received grants from this program.

“Things are gradually getting better for scientists in Thailand,“ says Yongyuth, comparing current conditions to what he faced when he first started working as a researcher, standing at the beginning of his career holding 7,000 baht in his hands. “There’s a system, good governance, better infrastructures and opportunities. I’m hopeful. Always have been.”

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