Watchara Kasinrerk almost cancelled his interview. He wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about himself so much. It was not until he was assured that the focus would be on his work that the award-winning immunologist relaxed and displayed the enthusiasm that fuels him as he lectures to undergraduates three times a week while also maintaining an active research career.
Watchara uncovered a new leukocyte surface molecule, CD298, in 2004. He has already applied results from his basic research to develop diagnostic tools that have the potential to save significant time and money for healthcare systems in developing countries like Thailand. Yet asked if he would rather spend more time conducting research, he shakes his head emphatically. “I wouldn’t do this if I couldn’t both teach and do research,” he says.
As the director of the Biomedical Technology Research Center at Chiang Mai University (CMU), Watchara is known for research on the use of monoclonal antibodies. His team at the university is focusing on technologies for the production of protein antigens and antibodies, as well as basic research on gene therapy and biochemical characterizations, and functional studies of leukocyte surface molecules. They are also developing high-performance immunodiagnostic kits.
Watchara founded the center in 2006 to encourage collaboration between scientists. “People from different parts of the university were separately working on their projects, and I broke down the walls,” he recounts. “I said, ‘Let’s work together as a team. I have space. I have the equipment. Come use it anytime.’”
Watchara received his BS in medical technology from CMU, but after spending a year as a medical technologist in a hospital, he knew “daily routine work was not me.” Having long been fascinated by immunology, he returned to his alma mater’s medical school and immersed himself in the subject, acquiring an MS in microbiology. He began his academic career in CMU’s Department of Medical Technology, Faculty of Associated Medical Sciences, where he remains today. He received a PhD in immunology from Universitat fur Bodenkultur Wien in Vienna in 1992.
In the past 3 years, two of Watchara’s discoveries have been adapted into products and licensed to a local company. The first is a simple method for screening for carriers of the genetic blood disorder α-thalassemia-1. Watchara’s team developed the immunochromatographic strip, which takes 3 minutes and costs less than a tenth of a DNA assay, using a generated monoclonal antibody.
Warchara’s team also produced a unique monoclonal antibody against CD4 protein, which was then applied as a new method and reagent for enumeration of CD4 lymphocytes. The method requires only an automatic hematoanalyzer, as opposed to conventional methods, which require an expensive flow cytometer that must be run by a specialist. The new method can be conducted locally at small facilities and yields results in less than an hour. It is a boon for a country like Thailand, which has a generalized HIV epidemic. Plans are already underway to market a commercial form to other high-burden countries.
Watchara’s current pipeline includes immunodiagnostics for α-thalassemia-1 Southeast Asian type, which is the most common genetic disorder in the Asian population. He is confident that he will have a final product within the year.
He is also pleased with his team’s progress on an antibody being developed into a TB diagnostic, which he believes will improve on current methods that are cumbersome, time consuming, and frequently yield false negatives. He is less gung-ho at the moment about his research into a protein believed to be a tumor marker—but ever the striver and optimist, he believes that the work will eventually yield a product that will be used as part of patients’ routine annual medical checkups.