My Journey From Being A Cancer Researcher To A Patent Attorney

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This guest article was written by Dr Kian Hoe Khoo, a Patent Attorney at Davies-Collison Cave. 

Life as a researcher

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My early days as a researcher started as a PhD student at the Centre for Protein Engineering at the University of Cambridge, under the supervision of Sir Alan Fersht. My PhD project involved investigating the structure and thermodynamic stability of the p53 protein, which is a tumour suppressor protein that is dysfunctional in 50% of all cancers. My work as a student involved producing and obtaining different mutants of p53 protein in bacteria and systematically measuring their stability using biophysical techniques. I subsequently graduated with a PhD and a couple of academic publications after about three years of hard work. 

I returned to Singapore in 2010 and joined the p53lab at the Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR) as a cancer researcher. My work at the p53 lab mainly revolved around two projects. The first project involved understanding how cancer cells from different leukaemia patients might respond differently to a cancer drug that activates the p53 tumour suppressor pathway. In the second project, I worked on improving existing antibodies to help diagnose prostate cancer. My supervisor, Sir David Lane, was a great mentor and a highly passionate scientist, and I was grateful for the numerous opportunities to discuss science with him and to learn from him. There were also many opportunities to interact with researchers from industry and other research institutes.

Career Considerations 

After about three years, I started to consider the longer term options that I have in my career. Although I enjoyed research, I felt the need to explore opportunities beyond bench work. Through my conversations with fellow researchers, it occurred to me that, often as researchers, we do not have a deep understanding on how to develop ideas into commercially useful technology. I therefore wanted to be able to broaden my horizon to understand what companies look for in terms of research and development. I also wanted to develop my knowledge to help bring pharmaceutical drugs and research tools to the market.

At that time, some of my peers at A*STAR had already moved on to various industry, academic or administrative positions in Singapore. This provided me with an idea of the career options that I have, apart from a research position in a scientific institute or university. I started exploring for job opportunities with the intention of joining a biotechnology or start-up company. However, strangely, there were not many openings at that time. I ended up making the slightly unusual decision of applying to and joining a local patent law firm, since not many have taken the same path before me.

Training as a Patent Attorney

So, I made the transition from a researcher to a trainee patent attorney. I moved from a laboratory to an office. There were suddenly no more reagents, pipettes or PCR machines. I had to start from scratch, as if I was putting everything that I had learnt behind me. There were new jargons and concepts to be understood and new skills to be learnt. There were also many deadlines to be met. Instead of reading scientific journals, I had to be scrutinizing patent specifications and documents. I had to learn how to prepare patent specifications and devise strategies to overcome objections from Patent Offices. It was indeed a steep learning curve for me. 

The route to qualification as a patent attorney was also a tedious one. It required the completion of a one-year part-time Graduate Certificate of Intellectual Property (GCIP) program at the National University of Singapore, as well as the clearance of four qualifying examination papers. The four examination papers test on skills relating to patent law, drafting of a specification, amendments and infringement analysis. I had to be working and studying at the same time, which was a big challenge to me. However, I am glad that this period of preparing for exams is now over.

My current work involves more responsibilities. I am still continually learning and honing my skills as a patent attorney. As part of my work, I have to be constantly meeting and interacting with clients and inventors. My scientific and legal knowledge and experience has helped me to better understand the business and commercial needs of my clients. It also gives me a sense of satisfaction to be able to provide my clients with good advice and to help them with securing the best possible protection for their inventions. I am glad to have made the transition to become a patent attorney and would encourage anyone who is interested, to explore this possible career option.

Dr Kian Hoe Khoo
Dr Kian Hoe Khoo

Dr Khoo Kian Hoe is a patent attorney at Davies Collison Cave. Kian Hoe completed his PhD in Protein Engineering at the University of Cambridge in 2010 and returned to Singapore as a research fellow at the p53lab in A*STAR. Kian Hoe subsequently moved to a local patent law firm to train as a patent attorney before qualifying as a registered patent attorney. He joined Davies Collison Cave LLP in 2016