Did you know that June was Cancer Immunotherapy Month? As a reflection, we speak to Cancer Research Malaysia’s very own Cancer Immunotherapy Groundbreakers.
The immunotherapy team in Cancer Research Malaysia (CRM) is made up of these dedicated scientists: Prof. Dr Cheong Sok Ching, Dr Vyomesh Patel, Dr Lim Kue Peng, Ms. Gan Chai Phei, Ms. Chai San Jiun and Mr. Sammuel Fong.
“Cancer immunotherapy is being hailed as the most promising new treatment for cancer and at Cancer Research Malaysia, we are delighted that we are making inroads into immunotherapy head and neck cancer patients,” says Dr Lim when asked why they do what they do.
So, what is cancer immunotherapy? Cancers find different ways of fooling the immune system into thinking that cancers are not abnormal and therefore they can grow unchallenged. “Cancer immunotherapy” describes the numerous approaches which can be used to train the immune system to recognise the cancers as abnormal. This can work either by using cell-based approaches, or using man-made approaches, such as antibodies and peptides.
When the first immunotherapy was approved by the US Food Drug Administration in 2011 to treat advanced melanoma, life expectancy for patients with that disease was measured in months. But new immunotherapies have extended that time to years—and melanoma was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2015, clinical trials showed that the approach holds promise for patients with other hard-to-treat cancers, including lung, kidney, bladder, and head and neck cancers and Hodgkin lymphoma .
To quote Dr Julie Vose, the past president of American Society of Clinical Oncology, “No recent advance has been more transformative than the rise of immunotherapy, particularly over this past year, making immunotherapy the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO’s) Advance of the Year.”
IMMUNOTHERAPY DEVELOPMENT IN CRM
A crucial step towards understanding how cancer develops is to find out the differences between cancer cells and normal cells. Years of research on oral and nasopharyngeal cancers have helped the team in CRM to identify several antigens (proteins) that are unique to the oral and nasopharyngeal cancer cells.
Extensive further research then showed that cancer cells are dependent on these antigens to grow – which means if we could put a “red flag” on these antigens, our immune system can be activated and trained to recognise cancer cells as the enemy and eliminate them. Just like vaccinations that we receive to alert our immune system towards harmful infectious agents, this form of immunotherapy i.e. cancer vaccines can be used to alert and ramp up our immune system to fight cancer.
So, what happens next?
Prof. Dr Cheong Sok Ching explains, “Doing science requires team work and this journey is not an exception. The development of this vaccine is a result of the tireless efforts of scientists and clinicians who sincerely believe that we must do more to improve treatment for cancer patients.
The discovery of the tumour antigens were made almost 10 years ago but we are closer than ever to turn it into a cancer vaccine. Right now, we are looking at stepping into the clinical development stage by conducting preclinical studies. Once completed and approved, then we can proceed to look at conducting the first-in-man Clinical Trial.”
CRM has very strong collaborations with many local partners including University of Malaya and the Oral Health Division of the Ministry of Health. In order to take this further into the clinic we have developed new partnerships with institutes in the USA and Singapore who have had success in testing immunotherapy in the clinic.
HOW YOU CAN HELP US DEVELOP THIS CANCER VACCINE
The future of cancer vaccine is closer than you think.
To-date, the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation (MOSTI) Malaysia has been our loyal supporter in funding and recognising our capabilities and dreams of wanting a future free of the fear of cancer. MOSTI’s monetary assistance played a crucial role in the development of this vaccine, and it will be now taken forward through collaboration together with a MOSTI agency, National Institute of Biotechnology Malaysia, Malaysia Institute of Pharmaceuticals and Nutraceuticals (iPHARM).
While millions of Ringgit and thousands of hours have been invested into this research, we still need RM6 million in order to successfully complete this project by the anticipated date: end of 2018.
The funding will enable critical testing of the vaccine as required by regulatory bodies (such as the Malaysian National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau (NPCB) and the USA FDA) before they can be used in clinical trials (the first testing in humans).
Together, we are looking at making a difference to almost 4.1 million cancer patients worldwide. If 2.2% out of the 30 million Malaysians donate RM10 to this cause, we would be done with the fundraising right now!
Help us reverse cancer by going to www.cancerresearch.my/donate and follow the given steps. You can also leave a note of encouragement to our Immunotherapy Groundbreakers in the comments box below – every sen and every kind word strengthens our spirit and resolve to realise our vision of a future free of the fear of cancer.
ABOUT CANCER RESEARCH MALAYSIA
Cancer Research Malaysia is Malaysia’s first independent cancer research non-profit organization, which is funded, managed, and staffed by Malaysians specifically focused on research of cancers prevalent in Malaysia. We work closely with governmental and non-governmental organizations alongside top scientists and clinicians (both locally and internationally) that conduct and support cancer research.
Since its establishment in 2001, Cancer Research Malaysia has published more than 150 scientific publications, filed 4 patents, established new clinical services, and trained Malaysian cancer researchers. Our research has already led to improvement in cancer care through the provision of the first genetic service in Malaysia and through the discovery and presentation of new genes and molecules that lead to promising new therapies for cancer. The bulk of the donation that we receive i.e. 90% of it goes towards funding research activities, and the remainder are used for conducting awareness and prevention outreach campaigns as well as to cover administrative costs.
For further information, please contact:
Head of Communications
Cancer Research Malaysia
T 603 5639 1965
Senior Events & PR Advisor
Cancer Research Malaysia
T 603 5639 1970