Interviewer: Ting-wei Chen, PanSci Editorial Department
Chinese original by Ting-wei Chen, PanSci Editorial Department
English translation by Wei-hsin Lin, Tang Prize Foundation
Headquartered in Taiwan, the Tang Prize is awarded in September every other year. It consists of four award categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law, and was set up to honor noteworthy researchers who have made great contributions to human civilization.
Among its four categories, Biopharmaceutical Science, which rewards people working in the biomedical and biopharmaceutical fields, is closely related to people’s daily lives, to issues that concern birth, aging, sickness, and death. During the past decades, biopharmaceutical sciences have been progressing by leaps and bounds. From new cancer therapy such as immunotherapy and targeted therapy to newer standard treatments for many autoimmune diseases, and technologies that made gene editing possible and easier, there have been breakthroughs that are expected to have a huge impact on every aspect of our lives.
Our interviewee is Dr. Wen-chang Chang, academician of Academia Sinica and chair of the Tang Prize Selection Committee for Biopharmaceutical Science. After graduating from the Department of Pharmacology at the Taipei Medical University, he went on to obtain a PhD degree from the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Science at the University of Tokyo. In 2011, he was elected a member of The World Academy of Sciences. Twice serving in the National Science Council under the Executive Yuan, he has long been a driving force behind the development of Taiwan’s biotechnological sector. Dr. Chang was involved in the Tang Prize right from when everything was still at the planning stage. He is both the chair of the Selection Committee for Biopharmaceutical Science and a witness to the glory the Tang Prize has garnered since its establishment.
Basic science and its applications working hand in hand
“Modern medicine is very advanced, with regard not only to the study of disease but also to its treatment. The Tang Prize Foundation decided to include biopharmaceutical science as one of the categories because we wanted to recognize original biomedical research that has benefited human health and has had positive effects on the diagnosis and treatment of major human diseases,” Dr. Chang remarked.
Seen by many as Asia’s Nobel Prize, the Tang Prize has so far only held four award ceremonies. After its 2014 laureates in Biopharmaceutical Science Dr. James P. Allison and Dr. Tasuku Honjo won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, its 2016 laureates in the same category Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna were jointly awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method of genome editing,” reads the Nobel citation. This is an amazing story of how two generations of Tang Prize laureates, one after the other, became recipients of the Nobel Prize. Granted, both the Nobel and the Tang Prize are awards intended to pay tribute to outstanding scientists worldwide, but do both have the same selection criteria? For Dr. Chang, the Nobel Prize emphasizes the originality and innovativeness of basic research, and its scope can sometimes be broadened. By comparison, the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science focuses on the collaboration between basic research and its applications, and its winners should have made new, concrete contributions to medication for humankind.
Scientists who have bettered human health
Judging by the achievements of the four generations of laureates in this category, we can see a direct connection between them being awarded a Tang Prize and the recent progress made in the application of their research. For example, the inaugural laureates Dr. James P. Allison and Dr. Tasuku Honjo were recognized for their contributions to cancer immunotherapy.
How “new” are their contributions? How do we evaluate their influence?
Dr. Allison’s main contribution is proving that an anti-CTLA-4 (cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4) antibody can activate T cells to kill cancer cells. His research was then extended to clinical trials that provided evidence of the effectiveness of this monoclonal antibody drug in treating certain types of cancer. His concept marked a new beginning of cancer immunotherapy and its influence has been nothing short of profound.
In addition to discovering an inhibitory receptor on T cells called PD-1(programmed cell death protein 1) and exploring the crucial role it plays in the mechanisms of tumor escape, Dr. Honjo also led a team in taking part in the drug development and continued to produce new research outcomes.
“When we were discussing whether to award him (Dr. Honjo) a Tang Prize in March, 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) had yet to approve any PD-1 inhibitors. But the data at that time showed the drug was highly effective, so we knew it was a new discovery, a new concept, and the establishment of a new principle for cancer treatment,” Dr. Chang recalled. September 2014, when the first Tang Prize Award Ceremony was held in Taipei, the first anti-PD-1 antibody drug was also approved by FDA.
Selection criteria for the Tang Prize: originality, contributions to society, and degrees of influence
It was with the same mindset that the selection committee selected Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, Dr. Jennifer A Doudna, and Dr. Feng Zhang to be the second group of scientists to win this prize, for their contributions to the CRISPR gene-editing technology. Based on their outstanding research on bacteria and archaea, Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna built the CRISPR/Cas9 platform, while Dr. Zhang, working independently, enhanced this platform and was the first to successfully adapt it for editing both mammalian and human cells.
Like a real godsend, CRISPR made its debut in 2012 and quickly won over the world. By contrast, most of the research in biomedical sciences does not tend to make great strides within such a short period of time. It usually takes decades for a project to proceed from basic research to clinical applications. The experience of Dr. Tony Hunter, one of the third generation of laureates in Biopharmaceutical Science, is a fitting example.
Dr. Hunter was jointly awarded the Tang Prize with Dr. Brian J. Druker and Dr. John Mendelson for their contributions to targeted cancer therapy, and the story begins with Dr. Hunter’s discovery of tyrosine kinases (TK) in the 1980s. This groundbreaking discovery not only transformed the scientific knowledge and the landscape of basic science of the time, but also ushered in the era of targeted cancer therapy. But we have to bear in mind that more than twenty years of continuous research was what made the practical application of this discovery finally come to fruition. It was not until 2001 that imatinib (Gleevec®), developed by Dr. Druker, became the first TKI (tyrosine kinase inhibitor) to be approved for sale. In 2004, cetuximab (Erbitux®), a monoclonal antibody to EGFR developed by Dr. Mendelson, became the first antibody drug that can inhibit the activation of tyrosine kinase to hit the market. This is how these “magic bullets” aimed at cancer cells were brought into existence.
Scientific research is a long journey where the torch of knowledge has to be passed on incessantly. Anytime there is a major biomedical breakthrough, it is usually the fruit of years and years of collective efforts made by many researchers in this field. However, for every Tang Prize award in Biopharmaceutical Science, only up to three people can be named winners. How to decide who should be included, therefore, becomes a real test of the wisdom of the committee members.
When the fourth time the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science was awarded, it went to Drs. Marc Feldmann, Charles Dinarello, and Tadamitsu Kishimoto for their contributions to the development of cytokine-targeting biologics for the treatment of inflammatory diseases. There are many cytokine families with complicated mechanisms of action, the details of many of which still need clarification. It is no wonder that it was such a painstaking task trying to reach an agreement on the final list of awardees.
“For example, we used to prescribe painkillers or anti-inflammatory drugs for patients with rheumatoid arthritis, but that didn’t really target the root cause of the disease…When selecting the (2020) winners, we focused on three notable principles: (therapies that are) most iconic, most effective, and most widely used,” Dr. Chang explained. It’s worth pointing out that besides treating autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, this type of drugs is also valued for its ability to prevent the deadly “cytokine storms” caused by severe COVID-19 infection.
Dr. Chang talked with great passion and familiarity about the details of every phase of the development of these medicines. He told us that during the selection process, the committee members had to conduct a thorough investigation of all the nominees and untangle the complexities of each of their research contexts.
How to decide the winners?—about the selection committee and its job
“We pay attention to every single profile, especially that of a potential winner and the research that led to his or her nomination. That’s why (the selection committee’s) preliminary study is so important,” Dr. Chang said.
The selection of the first and second generations of Tang Prize laureates was carried out by Academia Sinica. When the third award cycle began, an independent and professional selection committee was formed and consisted of international scholars and experts. The nomination of candidates is by invitation only. In May of the first year of the cycle, nomination packages are mailed to individuals and organizations eligible to recommend a candidate. The nomination phase ends in September. From then until May of the second year (the awarding year), the committee is expected to study and discuss intensively documents and materials related to the candidates. Apart from the originality and the practical application of the candidates’ research, possible combinations of different candidates in each group are also part of the discussion. The last round of reviews and discussions then takes place around April of the awarding year.
Dr. Chang revealed that when the list was whittled down to a few groups of candidates, their significant research achievements had been acknowledged and any one of these groups was deemed worthy of a Tang Prize. But since you can only give out the award once per awarding year, some difficult decisions still needed to be made. Thus, the committee members would comb through and analyze their discussions which mainly revolved around the spirit of the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, and which were from time to time quite lively even when being held across borders.
The conclusions reached after these prudent deliberations have helped the Tang Prize gain global popularity and attract the attention of the world. Its winners have wide influence, and a designated Tang Prize Award Lecture also started to crop up in many international conferences. It is a sign that the Tang Prize’s commitment to academic interaction has been recognized by the international community and this commitment has given Taiwan more opportunities to be seen on the world stage.
Speaking of the impact the Tang Prize can have on future scientists, Dr. Chang constantly ruminates about reminding budding talents in this field that they should integrate different aspects of their research, making sure what is achieved in fundamental research can be extended to practical application. He believes that even those devoted to basic research should try their best to take into account the potential application of their work. “It’s not that we expect the work of everyone (who undertakes research) to lead to certain translational results, but this concept itself is important. Any basic research is likely to solve some clinical problems in the future. So what is the potential there? They have to think about it,” Dr. Chang suggested.
He added that when the Tang Prize was established, he subscribed to the idea of creating a category called “Biopharmaceutical Science” without any hesitation. At that time, Academia Sinica was happy to offer its help. Even though many academicians were abroad, their passion for this mission was as great. They only hoped all the hard work would end up encouraging more fruitful research efforts.
Despite the fact that so far no Taiwanese scientist has been crowned with this glory, Dr. Chang remains optimistic, noting that “the quality of research done in Taiwan is getting better. Let’s keep our hopes alive and see if any Taiwanese researcher will one day win this prize.” Located in Taiwan, the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science also projects a future that invites our endless expectations.
◾️ The Mandarin original: