CANCER is a disease that afflicts all regardless of nationality. Yet, the general sense among Malaysians is that if there is to be a cure for cancer, it will come from the West.
Few people realise that we have an organisation called Cancer Research Malaysia that is doing cutting-edge work on finding a cure for cancer. It’s been around since 2001 and has made some significant progress. It also has many ambitious targets set for this year.
Its founder Dr Teo Soo-Hwang speaks to SAVVY about her research organisation and shares some insight into the different types of cancers that afflict Asians disproportionately.
How did you end up in cancer research?
My parents always encouraged us to excel in whatever we do, with a view towards improving the lives of people around us.
Both my elder brother and younger sister chose to become doctors but I decided on a different path. I got an Asean Scholarship to attend secondary school and junior college in Singapore. Then I secured a Sime Darby Foundation scholarship to study natural sciences at the University of Cambridge.
Upon completion of my PhD in 1996, I wanted to focus on cancer research and chose to work in the laboratory of Professor Stephen Jackson, the youngest ever professor at Cambridge. Together, we identified new genes which were previously not implicated in cancer.
What led you to starting up a research centre in Malaysia?
In 1998, I was approached by Tunku Tan Sri Ahmad Yahaya, then the chief executive of Sime Darby, to consider returning to Malaysia to establish a non-profit cancer research organisation.
He was looking at raising funds in Asia to support research on oral cancer, which affects Asians more than Caucasians, and kills 50 per cent of patients within three years.
Over the next two years, with Toh Puan Dr Aishah Ong, we wrote the concept paper, presented it to funding organisations and successfully obtained RM5 million seed funding from the Tote Board, Petronas, Lim Foundation and Sime Darby to establish Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation (CARIF) in January 2001.
Is it very much a Malaysian-centric organisation?
CARIF (now called Cancer Research Malaysia) is the first independent, non-profit cancer research organisation which is funded by Malaysians, staffed by Malaysians and focused on conducting Malaysian-specific cancer research.
Our mission is to conduct pioneering research on cancers prevalent in the nation, with potentially far-reaching implications for diagnosis and therapy.
We started with oral cancer but now our research activities include work on breast cancer, the most common cancer in Malaysia; nasopharyngeal cancer, another Asian-centric cancer, and developing new therapies based on natural compounds from Malaysia’s biodiversity.
Why is your logo a “C” in reverse?
Cancer is often called the big “C” and most people believe that “cancer = death”. At Cancer Research Malaysia, we believe “cancer research = hope”. Research will enable us to reverse cancer. That’s why our logo is a “C” written in reverse — reversing cancer.
Why is there a need for a local cancer research centre?
We are developing ways to prevent and cure cancers which are more common here, like oral and nasopharyngeal cancer. Together these cancers make up 11 per cent of deaths in Southeast Asia but only 4 per cent of deaths in Western countries.
We’re also generating knowledge about how genes affect our risk to cancer and our response to treatment.
Asians make up more than 50 per cent of the world’s population but less than five per cent of research studies. So we hope to change that.
Where does your funding come from?
We are loosely modelled after the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which has merged with Cancer Research Campaign to form Cancer Research UK. Like Cancer Research UK, we’re reliant on donations to support our work.
In the past 16 years, 66 per cent of our funding has come from core donors like Yayasan Sime Darby, Petronas and Yayasan Al-Bukhary.
These donors ensure that the overhead costs like staff salaries and equipment are covered so that other donations go directly to research programmes. About 20 per cent comes from fundraising events and 13 per cent from grants.
We also apply for international grants. We hope to get more direct donations from the public. It’s worth noting that about 40 per cent of the annual income at Cancer Research UK comes in GBP10 donations and we hope that Malaysians will also support us in this way.
Together, if each of us puts aside a small amount for cancer research, we can keep hope alive that we’ll find a cure for cancer.
What are some notable achievements so far?
We have developed a vaccine for oral and nasopharyngeal cancer and we’re testing whether this can reduce recurrence and also whether it can prevent these cancers from happening.
We have also developed a new method for genetic testing and this has brought down the cost of breast cancer genetic testing from more than RM10,000 to less than RM2,000.
We have conducted the first national study on ovarian cancer and are making sure that all ovarian cancer patients have access to robust genetic counseling.
What are the major plans for this year?
This year is a significant turning point for us. We’re the first Malaysian organisation to win a Collaborative Science Award from the Wellcome Trust and the first to beat 800 other applicants to win a Medical Research Council UK Challenge fund.
We also won four of the 12 Newton Ungku Omar Grants available. This year will be about delivering on the promise.
We would also have completed the first comprehensive analysis of 8,000 breast cancer patients and 8,000 healthy controls, coupled with an analysis of tumour samples.
We would also have completed our initial tests with vaccines for oral and nasopharyngeal cancer and we would have rolled out genetic counselling in 21 centres across the country.
How long do you think it will be before scientists are able to cure cancer?
We’re already able to prolong the survival for many cancers. In 1970, about 50 per cent of patients would die within five years.
Today, on average, the survival rate has doubled. Unfortunately advances in survival rates are not equal across all cancers.
For oral cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer, survival has not improved significantly. But I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to beat cancer eventually, one cancer at a time.
What gives you hope that we will one day find a cure?
We may not be able to cure cancer but I believe that we can make it a controllable disease, like diabetes or heart disease. I am optimistic because we’re no longer in the industrial age where production drives the economy.
We now have a knowledge economy driven by innovation, big data and artificial intelligence. I am confident that “disruptors” will find a way to hack cancer. Together, we can do this!
How important is the Internet to your work?
The Internet is everything. The start of any project is a review of what is known in the area and this would not be possible without the Internet.
The interactions with collaborators all take place online and this enables us to find the right people and the right expertise faster and more accurately.
Social media channels help us reach patients, doctors, researchers and many others to engage with the cause.
How do you go about raising awareness about the work Cancer Research Malaysia is doing?
Until recently, we have not done much to raise awareness about the work we do here.
This is because as scientists we’re careful people and we’re all afraid of overpromising. But we know that until we raise awareness about the work being done here, people won’t believe that a Malaysian organisation can truly be impactful in the fight against cancer.
We invite Malaysians to join us through our social media channels, support us through our website and attend our outreach events.
What keeps you motivated?
My life has been incredibly blessed — good health, a loving family, opportunities
to study at the best universities and to
work with so many accomplished individuals. Cancer Research Malaysia is an avenue for me to give back and to pay it forward.
My motivation is simple — to conduct the best possible research with a particular focus on the issues faced by Asians in the battle against cancer.