Send to

[Eye Interview] Treating patients and R&D go hand in hand

Internationally renowned lupus expert, Dr. Bae Sang-cheol talks about importance of medical R&D

May 6, 2023 - 16:01 By Kim Hoo-ran
Dr. Bae Sang-cheol speaks during an interview at his office at Hanyang University Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Seoul, on April 19. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

As we exchange business cards at the start of the interview, his card catches my attention. The navy blue card with silver letters and an embossed seal of the school is very distinguished looking. The design clearly intends to command respect.

I note the unusual design and Dr. Bae Sang-cheol, distinguished professor at Hanyang University, explains that the school’s distinguished professors are given the special cards.

Bae, a former director of Hanyang University Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, is also the director of Hanyang University Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology as well as the director of Hanyang University Institute for Rheumatic Research.

Full disclosure. I have been Bae’s patient for nearly 25 years.

Bae is due to officially retire as a full professor in August 2024, but this clearly is not someone who is going to rest on his laurels.

Bae is both a clinician and researcher. While treating patients at the hospital, he has been engaged in groundbreaking research in rheumatic diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. Later this month, he will play host to Lupus and KCR 2023, an international gathering of lupus and rheumatic diseases specialist in Seoul as the congress chair.

When he stepped down as the head of the Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in 2019 after some 14 years, the Clinical Research Center for Rheumatoid Arthritis was elevated to the Institute for Rheumatology Research and Bae was put in charge of it.

Looking to improve the institute, he engaged an outside consulting firm with the 30 million won ($22,700) in prize money he had been given as the recipient of the school’s Paiknam Distinguished Scholar Professor award in 2019 and donation from a former student.

“Looking at the report produced after a yearlong consultation, we came to the conclusion that an external grant was necessary to run a research institute,” he said.

An Education Ministry program that provides support for university research institutes came to his notice. It is a nine-year program that provides 700 million won a year for nine years, with a review after every three years.

Thinking that the Education Ministry’s program might just be the answer to the institute's funding woes, he set about applying for it, although hardly any institutes that were already part of the program were run by clinicians, Bae said.

“I thought we had a 50-50 chance but pressed on because I thought having a goal would help also with setting the research direction. So we focused on precision medicine and prepared our funding application for about seven months,” he said.

Despite the long odds, the application was approved in 2021.

“The project runs through 2030 and I would need to see it to the end in some form or another,” Bae said. So, I had been right in observing that Bae would not be sailing off into the sunset anytime soon.

The university was selected for the government funding in June 2021 and in December 2021, Hanyang University Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology officially opened its doors with Bae as its head.

Dr. Bae Sang-cheol poses in front of Hangyang University Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology in Seoul. (Courtesy of Hanyang University Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases)

Because the funding is to be used toward building research infrastructure, it is geared toward laying the foundations. Bae is hopeful that the funding would boost the chances of attracting other grants. “I have set the groundwork for my junior doctors’ research. After nine years, they will need to survive on their own,” he said.

Throughout the interview, Bae came back to the importance of research several times. He may have kept on treating patients, had it not been for his experience in the US. He worked as a rheumatology research fellow and instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Harvard Medical School from 1996 to 1998 and met Dr. Matthew Liang, who would become his lifelong mentor. While there, he observed that health policy and management was a dominant field of study and in 1998, he also earned a Master's degree in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Upon his return to Seoul, he set about clinical research and established cohort studies. In 2002, he joined the Health Ministry’s drug pricing and reimbursement committee as a member of its advisory board, an experience that left him skeptical and disappointed. “The meetings were all about multinational pharmas and how to slash drug prices,” he said.

In 2005, he switched his direction to health and medical R&D policy. “Treating patients, I realized R&D is a necessity,” Bae said.

It was also around this time that he came to focus on precision medicine. “This was something that must be done globally, I thought. And when opportunities arose, I participated as co-researcher or did grant reviews of global projects led by the US’ NIH or Britain’s NHS,” Bae said.

“It broadened my horizon and I think it set the Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in the direction of research based on patient treatment,” he said.

While the quality of medical treatment in Korea ranks among the world’s top, Bae conceded that the country is lagging far behind in pioneering R&D. Currently, all new drugs are from the US or the UK, he noted. “New drugs are a big part of R&D,” he said.

“If we treat patients with such R&D in mind, we can treat them in much more innovative ways,” he said, adding that this is particularly important for patients with very complex and complicated conditions.

Bae has always worn more than one hat, more than one project going at a time. How does he manage?

“I’ve been getting up at 5 a.m. every day for the past 30 years,” he said. This is followed by an English conversation session with a native speaker and he is at the hospital by 6:40 a.m. to 6:45 a.m. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, he starts his rounds at 7:15 a.m. and by 8:15 a.m. he is ready to see his patients, although patient appointments start at 9 a.m. “This way, there will be less of a backlog as the day progresses,” he said.

There have been temptations along the way -- offers of government positions, possibility of opening a private practice -- but Bae said he continued on his path as a clinician and researcher because he thinks that is the best use of his abilities. “I have kept my principles and have been strict with myself,” he said.

He was supported by his wife of 37 years, he noted. “In a way she is even more strict about this."

His commitment to his calling has come at a price. Now a grandfather, he feels guilty about not having spent more time with his son. “I was the one who insisted that we have only one child,” he said.

As the eldest son, Bae had his parents travel to Seoul from their hometown on major holidays up until three years ago because he just could not spare the time to leave the city and the hospital. “I often see children taking care of their elderly patients. I have great respect for them,” he said.

Such personal sacrifices are not lost on his patients.

I remember a Christmas Eve many years ago when he dropped by my hospital room, very unexpected. I had snuck outside with a canned coffee from a vending machine, my sorry attempt at celebrating Christmas Eve. As I passed by the nurses’ station on return, a nurse said, “Professor Bae was here and you were not in your room. Where were you?”

He came by again after he was informed of my return. He was at the hospital that night because one of his patients was in labor and he might be needed, he said. He thought he would to check on his other patients since he was at the hospital anyway.

This is my chance to say how much I appreciated that visit and how inspired I was by his dedication and the concern he showed for his patients.

Dr. Bae Sang-cheol discusses a patient's condition at his office at Hanyang University Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Seoul. (Courtesy of Hanyang University Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases)