Laureates thank Tang Prize for recognition in cancer fight

2018/06/19 13:03:26 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
Tony Hunter, John Mendelsohn and Brian Druker

Tony Hunter, John Mendelsohn and Brian Druker

San Diego and Portland, June 19 (CNA) The three laureates of the 2018 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science have expressed gratitude to the selection committee for recognizing their long-term pursuit of finding a cure for cancer.

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, the Tang Prize Selection Committee announced Tuesday.

Their research and findings of protein tyrosine phosphorylation and tyrosine kinase as oncogenes have led to successful targeted cancer therapies, according to the committee.

Upon learning the news, 74-year-old Hunter told CNA that he is delighted to have been recognized with the prize, which acknowledges his team's efforts to understand the basic mechanism underlying cancer.

Hunter, a professor of biology at the U.S.-based Salk Institute, 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.

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

"It took about five years or so before we really appreciated how important this was going to be. We could not immediately have predicted that we would 40 years later be using drugs against tyrosine kinase," he said.

He pointed out that before targeted therapies, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy formed the mainstream of cancer treatment. However, both radiation and chemotherapy are devastating to the patient's body.

"So we felt that if you could design molecularly targeted drugs, you would do a lot less damage and perhaps be even more effective," he said.

His discovery later gave birth to targeted therapies that have less severe side effects and better survival rates for cancer patients.

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®).

The drug turned chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a cancer that once had a very low survival rate, into a manageable condition.

The 63-year-old scientist also told CNA that his winning of the Tang Prize is "incredible news."

"I have known about this award from one of my advisors in our cancer center, I have done a fair bit of research, and understand how important this award is. It is absolutely remarkable to receive a phone call with this incredible news," he said.

Druker said that he and his team were basically trying to understand what drives the growth of cancer cells and using that knowledge to attack cancer without harming normal cells.

"Twenty or 25 years ago, that was considered impossible, but we worked on the disease called CML, and understood what exactly drove the growth of this cancer, and working with the drug company, we helped to design a drug," he noted.

Druker said he has very often been reminded by a cancer patient's thank-you note of the importance of such groundbreaking discoveries in treating cancer.

"It reminds me of why it is so important, the work that we are doing, because they are alive because of the work we've done. They are the living reminder of the power of what we can accomplish," he said.

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.

Describing it as a special honor to be awarded by the Taiwanese foundation, Mendelsohn, 81, told CNA that it shows that his research has been helping people around the globe, not just in the United States.

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

He recalled that two decades ago, only 30 percent of cancer patients lived for more than five years after diagnosis. Thanks to the breakthroughs made by himself and his team, that percentage has risen to around 60 percent.

"That says something. It says we are making progress, and we are very excited (about it)," he said.

The Tang Prize, established by Samuel Yin (尹衍樑), chairman of the Ruentex Group, is a set of biennial international awards bestowed 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 Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top research institution.

The award ceremony is scheduled to take place Sept. 21 at Taipei's Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, according to the Tang Prize foundation.

(By Edward Tsao, Chiang Chin-yeh and Joseph Yeh)
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