SCIENTISTS know that cancer is essentially a genetic disease that develops over a period of time as a result of genetic mutations that occur in a single cell.
These multiple genetic changes can be triggered by a number of factors, such as our genes, the environment, lifestyles and different infectious agents.
In a nutshell, cancer develops as a stepwise progression from normalcy to malignancy when cells divide more freely than they should.
According to Dr Teo Soo Hwang, who is CEO and principal investigator of Carif, the mission behind Carif is simple: to establish a world-class cancer research centre that focuses firmly on cancers common in Malaysia. Knowledge gained from this scientific venture, says Dr Teo, will be useful in designing new diagnostic and therapeutic tools against cancer.
“One of Carif’s focus areas is in oral and nasopharyngeal cancer. It is estimated that up to 80% of oral and nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) occur in Asia. What’s more, the outlook of oral cancer management hasn’t improved significantly in the past 20 years. This is partly because it seems to be a ‘developing country disease’ and there is very little research done in the West on molecular analysis of these cancers.
Dr Teo believes that the forefront of cancer research is microarray technology.
“With the availability of the complete sequence of the human genome, it’s now possible to study all 30,000 human genes simultaneously. We can now begin to gain greater insight into genes to identify underlying components in tumour development.
“Carif is working on two classes of genes that are of interest in cancer research. Oncogenes are accelerators of cancer development whereas tumour suppressor genes are cellular brakes that prevent the cell from reproducing.
“If we know what is driving or slowing cellular proliferation and, therefore, how to control or regulate it, we can bring it back to normalcy,” explains Dr Teo, who has received numerous scholarships including the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin research fellowship.
“Microarray allows for better sub-classification, and can be used to identify individuals who are able to respond or not to particular types of therapy even though diagnosis appears to be similar.
“However, cancer research is very expensive. For example, each microarray experiment can cost between RM3,000 and RM4,000. No doubt, cancer research is expensive but it’s essential if it’s going to make an impact on diagnosis and therapy for the future,” she says.
Her colleague, research scientist Dr Cheong Sok Ching who is in charge of the oral cancer research project, adds that it is sometimes difficult to apply research findings directly from the West to the Asian experience due to the different genetic profiles of cancer cells in response to different etiological factors.
“In the case of oral cancer, it has been observed that patients in the East and West tend to be exposed to different cancer-causing agents such as tobacco, alcohol and betel quid.
“It has been shown that if you have been exposed to different cancer causing agents, you’d have distinct genetic alterations that may lead to cancer. This is why research findings in the West, where lifestyle and genetic contents are different, cannot always be extrapolated and used in the East.
“We know that cancer is not caused by a single gene, therefore it is important to look at pathways and many genes at one time using microarrays,” she says. – BY HOOI YOU CHING
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