More than 370,000 patients are diagnosed with head and neck cancer every year, and sadly, there has been less improvement in survival when compared to other cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer. This is because head and neck cancers are rare in North America and Europe (where most of research centres are located), and there simply isn’t enough funding and support for this cancer. This is particularly relevant to us, as shockingly, 65% of all oral cancer patients are of Asian descent. If we don’t do this research right here in Asia, who will?
For the past decade, we have been working on ways to boost a patient’s immune system to treat oral cancers. We all know that receiving a jab with an inactivated virus or an mRNA with the covid19 spike protein can stimulate our immune system to give us protection against covid19, but did you know that we can also receive a jab with a DNA with a cancer protein that could stimulate our immune system to actively fight oral cancer?
So, why is this so important?
Patients diagnosed with oral cancer rarely survive more than 2 years. So, why is oral cancer so deadly? It’s usually because it goes undetected in the early stages and in turn, patients seek treatments when the disease is too advanced to be treated and has already metastasized to another part of the body.
The challenge is that these cancers have found a way to be “invisible” to the immune system. And so, we developed a therapeutic cancer vaccine that can train the immune system to zoom into the cancer and get rid of it. So far, we have already patented the technology [with patents in multiple Asian countries], and we already know from safety studies that this is a safe vaccine that can increase cancer control by up to 82%.
(Here’s for the geeks like us out there)
Our first generation cancer vaccine involved injecting peptides [parts of cancer proteins] directly into the blood stream and enable these to stimulate the immune cells. But we found that this was unstable and didn’t produce a durable response. So we worked on stabilising the vaccine by putting the cancer protein on a DNA molecule, and injecting this DNA molecule into the muscle. The DNA molecule would instruct the cells to make the cancer protein and this would stimulate the immune system to recognise cancer proteins and the cells that make these proteins [ie. the cancer cells] and voila! The immune system is trained to hunt out cancer cells.
How did this happen in the first place?
This work has been a long term collaboration between our scientists and scientists at the University of Southampton (and now including the University of Liverpool). It takes global teams to take this type of work forward and it is particularly heartwarming to work with doctors like Prof Dr Christian Ottensmeier, Prof Dr Gareth Thomas and Dr Natalia Savelyeva who are not only passionate about science, but about delivering real solutions for cancers common in Asians.
And of course, none of this would have been possible without donations and research grants. Chemicals were mostly paid by a grant from Newton Ungku Omar Fund (ASM, MIGHT and MRC), and donations paid for staff salaries, equipment and overheads.
In the end,
Could we deliver a Malaysian-made therapy for cancer common in Asians? We certainly hope so, but we need your help! The pandemic has reduced the number and amount of research grants available for cancer (e.g. the Newton Fund is no longer available and most of the funding has been diverted to the other big “C”, *ahem* covid), and we need your help. Donations enable us to sustain lifesaving research in Asians and any amount is gratefully received. 90% of all donations goes directly to research and you can help ensure the fight against cancer doesn’t miss Asians – especially Malaysians.