Tang Prize laureates share stories and vision in fighting cancer (Focus Taiwan)

  • Professor Hung Mien-chie (洪明奇), a Taiwanese-born American molecular biologist and cancer researcher.
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Taipei, Sept. 22 (CNA) The three laureates of the 2018 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science on Saturday shared the stories behind their discoveries and their vision in finding a cure for cancer during a Taipei lecture.

The three world-leading scientists -- Tony Hunter, Brian Druker and John Mendelsohn -- have won the 2018 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science for their breakthroughs in developing targeted cancer therapies.

Their research and findings on protein tyrosine phosphorylation and tyrosine kinase as oncogenes have led to successful targeted cancer therapies, according to the Tang Prize Selection Committee.

Hunter and Druker both attended Friday's award ceremony and a Tang Prize laureates' lecture in Taipei Saturday morning while Mendelsohn was not able to travel to Taiwan due to health issues.

Mendelsohn's son Jeff Mendelsohn received the award Friday on behalf of his father, while his Saturday lecture was presented by professor Hung Mien-chie (洪明奇), a Taiwanese-born American molecular biologist and cancer researcher.

In his lecture, Hunter, a professor of biology at the U.S.-based Salk Institute, said he was honored to have been recognized with the prize, which acknowledges his team's efforts to understand the basic mechanism underlying cancer.

Hunter recalled that it was nearly 40 years ago when he and his team "stumbled on" tyrosine kinase during research on viruses.

Their ground-breaking findings were originally rejected until they resubmitted the paper with new data.

Hunter's discovery gave birth to the field of targeted therapies after discovering in 1979 the mechanism of tyrosine phosphorylation and that the oncogene Src is a tyrosine kinase.

The historic discovery paved the way for research over the following two decades on tyrosine kinase oncogenes, ultimately leading to the development of TKIs (tyrosine kinase inhibitors).

The current success of targeted therapies owes a great deal to him, according to the committee.

According to Hunter, since their finding of first tyrosine kinase in 1979, more than 90 tyrosine kinases have been found.

Hunter disclosed that now his team is working on possible pancreatic cancer treatment and hopefully more progress will be made soon.

Based on Hunter's discovery, Druker, director of the Oregon Health and Science University's Knight Cancer Institute, led successful clinical trials of the cancer-fighting drug imatinib (Gleevec®).

In his lecture on Saturday, Druker said many pharmaceutical companies at first did not think the investment was worth the money and time.

It took a lot of effort by him to persuade pharmaceutical companies to allow clinical trials after he affirmed that targeted therapies could make chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a cancer that once had a very low survival rate, a manageable condition.

Now CML patients treated with Gleevec® have a 90 percent survival rate over five years, according to him.

In his speech, Druker also showed videos and photos of his patients who benefited from the drug he invented, crediting these patients as being the main reason for him to continue devoting his efforts to this area.

"I want to thank my patients who joined the journey with me. We will take each cancer at a time, pretty sure it will add up before we come up with treatment (to more cancers)," he added.

Meanwhile, also benefiting from Hunter's research, Mendelsohn and his team came up with the idea that antibodies targeting epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) may be an effective strategy for cancer treatment.

The president emeritus of Texas University's MD Anderson Cancer Center and his team conducted pre-clinical research and developed the anti-EGFR antibody cetuximab (Erbitux®), which eventually won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of colon cancer and head/neck cancer, according to the committee.

Mendelsohn was previously awarded an honorary doctorate by the Taichung-based China Medical University in 2006 for his contributions in the medical field.

Hung's speech on Saturday made on behalf of Mendelsohn attempted to predict the future of cancer treatment.

Such treatment would likely include a surveillance of biomarkers during diagnosis and treatment; an integration and sharing of clinical, biomarker, immunologic big data; before a combination of targeted therapy and immune therapy to create a personalized cancer treatment plan for each patient.

Aside from joining the awards ceremony and Saturday's lectures, Druker is scheduled to give a speech at the Taichung-based China Medical University (中國醫藥大學) on Tuesday while Hunter will speak at the Taipei-based National Taiwan University (台灣大學) on Wednesday.

The Tang Prize, established by Taiwanese businessman and philanthropist Samuel Yin (尹衍樑), chairman of the Ruentex Group, is a set of biennial international awards bestowed to high achievers in four fields -- sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology and rule of law.

Nominations and selections are conducted by an independent selection committee, with input from the Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top research institution.