Biologist Tony Hunter on Tuesday delivered his Tang Prize Award Lecture at the Experimental Biology conference, after winning the prize in 2018.
He shared his latest research into mechanisms behind pancreatic and liver cancer at the virtual conference, which began on Tuesday and runs until today, the Tang Prize Foundation said.
Hunter, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, said that the formation of most tumors cannot be attributed to the mutation of one single cell type, but rather to interactions between cancer cells and surrounding tissue.
Research should focus on understanding the interactions in the tumor microenvironment to “uncover a good target to eventually cure the disease,” he said.
Hunter’s research in the past few years focused on the interaction between cancer cells and pancreatic stellate cells, he said.
When stellate cells are activated, they secrete proteins to form a shell around the tumor that might resist cancer drugs, as well as a signaling protein that stimulates cancer growth, Hunter said.
However, the signaling protein “may be a useful biomarker to help diagnose pancreatic cancer more easily and efficiently,” he said.
Hunter’s research has also led to the identification of an enzymic intermediate called phosphohistidine, which is believed to play a central role in several forms of cancer, including liver and breast cancer, he said.
Hunter was awarded the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science for research that paved the way for the development of a class of cancer drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), which were the 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, an amino acid, allows cells to control when key proteins are on standby and when they are active.
TKIs inhibit phosphate malfunctions, which might spur the growth of cancer, the institute said.
The Tang Prize is a set of four international prizes awarded every two years for outstanding contributions in the fields of sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology and the rule of law.