Tang Prize winner shares new cancer research at biomedical conference (Focus Taiwan)

  • Tony Hunter, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science
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Taipei, April 29 (CNA) 2018 Tang Prize laureate Tony Hunter delivered a speech Tuesday at a major annual biomedical conference, in which he shared his latest research into the mechanisms behind pancreatic and liver cancer, according to the Tang Prize Foundation.

Hunter, currently a professor of molecular and cell biology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, was invited to give the Tang Prize Award Lecture at the Experimental Biology conference, which is taking place virtually April 27-30, the foundation said.

In his remarks, Hunter explained that the formation of most tumors cannot be attributed to the mutation of one single cell type, but rather to the interactions between cancer cells and the surrounding normal cells.

For this reason, it is important to understand how different types of cells interact with each other within the tumor microenvironment, in order to "uncover a good target to eventually cure the disease," he said.

In recent years, Hunter said, his research has focused on interactions between cancer cells and a specific type of cell -- known as the stellate cell -- in the pancreas.

First, he said, his team's research has shown that when pancreatic stellate cells are activated, they secrete proteins to form a shell around the tumor that can be resistant to cancer drugs.

Moreover, the activated cells also secrete a signaling protein called LIF, which delivers stimulatory signals to tumor cells to drive pancreatic cancer and progression, he said.

This suggests that LIF "may be a useful biomarker to help diagnose pancreatic cancer more easily and efficiently," according to Hunter.

Aside from this, Hunter said, he has also undertaken research that has led to the recognition of a compound called phosphohistidine, which is believed to play a central role in several forms of cancer, including liver and breast cancer.

Hunter was awarded the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science in 2018 for research that paved the way for the development of anti-cancer drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), prototypes of today's targeted therapies.

According to the Salk Institute, Hunter discovered that the addition and subtraction of phosphate molecules to proteins on tyrosine, one of the 20 amino acids, allows cells to control when key proteins are on standby and when they are active.

In cancers, growth is switched into overdrive by malfunctions in these phosphates.

Hunter's discovery, meanwhile, led to the development of drugs -- TKIs -- that inhibit this process, thus preventing cancers from growing.

The Tang Prize is a set of four international awards bestowed every two years in recognition of outstanding contributions in the fields of sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology and the rule of law.

(By Chen Chih-chung and Matthew Mazzetta)