Singapore-led team of Asian cancer researchers wins prestigious American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Team Science Award

For the first time, an Asian team of cancer researchers has won the prestigious American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Team Science Award, an award that honours researchers for their global impact on cancer research. This year’s winning team is an international collaboration led by a Singapore team comprising Professors Patrick Tan (Team Leader), Bin Tean Teh, Steve Rozen and colleagues from Duke-NUS Medical School, National Cancer Centre Singapore, Genome Institute of Singapore, and collaborators from Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. Since inception, teams from the US have won the award eight times, and a team from the UK won in 2012. 

The focus of the team’s research is on cancers that are prominent in Asia but less studied in the West, because such cancers constitute a major global healthcare burden and an unmet medical need. Professor Tan said, “Our research programme was founded on a common realisation — that in Asia, there existed several endemic, highly prevalent, and lethal cancers rarely seen in the West, and that many of these Asian cancers could be linked to specific exposures and environmental agents (e.g. bacteria, viruses, and toxins). We hypothesised that investigating Asian cancers would allow the study of interactions between the environment and cancer in a more direct way compared to Western cancers, and that such investigations could identify better ways to manage Asian cancer and also potentially shed light on Western cancers as well.” 

Driven by this vision, Professor Tan and colleagues partnered with key cancer scientists and clinicians in the region as part of an ambitious, long term research programme, to identify disrupted pathways in Asian cancers and new therapeutic targets. By dissecting the effects of carcinogenic exposure in these cancers, they also aimed to inform new methods of cancer prevention. Finally, they aimed to leverage their studies of Asian cancers to facilitate a better understanding of other cancers worldwide. 

The AACR’s decision to award the team for their research focus on Asian cancers is particularly timely and pertinent. Currently, Asia accounts for about 60% of the global population, contributing 44% of all cancer cases, and 51% of global cancer mortality. Moreover, global cancer burden is projected to increase dramatically in Asia. There is thus an urgent need to focus on developing improved treatment for cancer patients, and particularly for patients in Asia.

The team studied numerous cancers, including gastric cancer, Asian-prevalent lymphomas such as natural killer T-cell lymphomas, bile-duct cancers, and cancers associated with exposure to aristolochic acids. Prior to their work, little was known about these cancers. Their work helped to identify new genes and pathways, which if disrupted may represent new avenues for further therapies. For example, the team identified major genetic abnormalities in stomach cancers, a leading cause of global cancer death, and were able to translate these findings into clinical trials targeting these abnormalities. They also showed how parts of DNA affected by carcinogens can be used as screening tools to identify previously undetected carcinogen exposures. 

Professor Patrick Casey, Senior Vice Dean of Research at Duke-NUS, noted that “Duke-NUS is cognisant of the importance of forging deep relationships among scientists and institutions, emphasising trust, goodwill and collaborative respect. We firmly support partnerships and have over 130 synergistic research alliances with numerous partners. One outstanding example is this award-winning collaboration between our cancer researchers and their regional counterparts.” 

Professor Teh added, “We strongly believed that by working as a team, we can make more meaningful and impactful progress compared to working individually.” 

The collaboration has led to multiple collaborative publications and discoveries in leading peer-reviewed journals, and contributed to the knowledge and understanding of Asian cancers. Their research has also informed government policies. For instance, research led by Professor Rozen on aristolochic acid (AA), a compound found in certain traditional herbal medicines, revealed a potential role for AA exposure in the development of liver cancer. This finding both increased public awareness of the risks of AA exposure and led regulatory agencies to announce stricter policies on use of AA-containing plants.