Many believe that human is the toughest species on earth for a long time, we had fought through wars, plague and many deadly diseases but there is still one thing that we can’t defeat, i.e. cancer. Cancer is a fatal disease that has been known to kill humanity for centuries. We seem not to know how to successfully prevent and cure cancer due to the reason that every cancer patient has a distinct type of mutations within his/her tumor; thus it needs to be treated by a specific and precise medicine that doesn’t suit with everyone. However, with the 2018 Nobel Prize-awarded scientific findings and the discovery of modern medicine, it seems like there might be a cure for cancer after all.
Recently, MBA magazine got a chance to sit down with Dr. Trairak Pisitkun at Chulalongkorn University and talk about his Systems Biology Center. Dr. Trairak and his team have been developing an antibody drug that would help improve the ability of our own immune system to fight against cancer. Long before Dr. Trairak starting this project, he graduated from Mahidol University, Faculty of Medicine Ramathibodi Hospital in 1994, followed by specialized training in Internal Medicine and Nephrology. However, after working as a physician for a while, he felt like this was not enough for him; he wished that he could be doing something more than just following the guidelines for treating patients.
“I’ve realized that Thai doctors have been following guidelines from foreign doctors and I hope we could be doing something more innovative and more suitable for Thai people. Then again, by inventing innovations to help Thai people, I certainly need more knowledge in advanced science and technologies; so I decided to continue my career aboard as a researcher and scientist instead of a medical doctor”, Dr. Trairak said. He had been working at the National Institutes of Health or NIH in the United States of America for 9 years until he became a specialist in Systems Biology, Antibody R&D and Computational Biology. After moving back to Thailand 5 years ago, he has been working as Director of Center of Excellence in Systems Biology, Chulalongkorn University.
Currently, he has been developing an antibody drug to help Thai patients fight with cancer, before that he had been developing antibodies for basic research and diagnostic purposes. “Unintentionally, I’ve been invited to a closed group on social network for doctors and cancer patients who are interested in cancer immunotherapy. Every day, I would read stories of patients telling other people about their conditions and how it has miraculously gotten better after using the immune checkpoint antibody drug. It's incredible to perceive and, eventually, I was sold and desired to develop this type of medicine for Thai people using our antibody technology mainly because the extravagant cost, yet amazing efficacy, of this treatment”.
In America, Vice President Joe Biden has proposed a program called “Cancer Moonshot” during his Vice Presidency to support the research for curing cancer. By accelerating cancer research, the Cancer Moonshot program aims to make more effective therapies available to more patients, while also improving our ability to prevent cancer and detect it at an early stage. There have been cured cases in America by using immunotherapy which Dr. Trairak hoped that one day he and his team would be able to provide this kind of treatment for Thai people at an affordable price that would allow anyone to have access.
Instead of treating cancer by chemotherapy or radiation which would cause damages to other normal tissues and organs within our body, immunotherapy helps improve the ability of white blood cells and prevent cancer from blocking white blood cells to fight against them without damaging our body. After Dr. Trairak explains to us about the immunotherapy, we got a chance to ask him some questions that would help provide more understanding on the therapy and the plans that he has for Thai patients.
Is there a chance that we could use some kinds of gene sequencing analysis to help us know in advance or warn us that we have cancer?
There are some cases such as hereditary cancers that would allow us to predict in advance about whether we would have cancer, but there are only 8% chance of hereditary cancers. A majority of cancers are caused by somatic mutations; the likelihood that this will happen increases when we get older. This condition also depends on various exposures that we got from the environment such as food that we consume or chemicals to which we had been exposed. The current concept in cancer biology emphasizes that the sickening of the immune system is the cause of cancer progression. All of us always have a chance to get cancer, but it doesn't happen to everyone due to the defensive power of our immune system. By harnessing the natural defense, immunotherapy is effective and durable; moreover, it has fewer side effects than other types of cancer treatment.
What’s the percentage of success?
With the current indications, the percentage of success is still moderate (20-30%) in advanced cancer patients that are using this antibody drug. But considering that this medicine has been out in public for only 4 years, I believe that the advance in immunotherapy research will further improve the outcome of this treatment substantially.
The Progress of Developing Medicine in Thailand
Dr. Trairak mentioned that his center is developing their own antibody drug. They generate the antibody drug by immunizing mice and later screening for antibody-producing white blood cell clones that would secrete the proper mouse antibodies (Phase 1). They have to modify the mouse antibodies to make them as close to human antibodies as possible to avoid other side effects that the medicine would have on the human (Phase 2). However, some processes would require technical assistance from the overseas laboratory as specific skills are lacking in Thailand. Currently, they have found a potential antibody drug prototype that would worth to pursue further and are waiting for the next step of the process (Phase 2) to start.
Right now, Dr. Trairak has started fundraising for the immunotherapy project by asking Thai people to donate 5 baht each to the project. He has hoped that the fund would rise to 200 million baht within 1 year to get to the large-scale production step (Phase 3). If everything has gone according to plan, the antibody prototype will be produced at large scale (Phase 3: 18-24 months) and then studied on animals first (Phase 4: 20-24 months) then he would move to experiment on human subjects (Phase 5: 48-60 months) before getting an approval by Thai FDA and distributing the medicine out to be sold in hospitals in Thailand with the aim of pricing at 20,000 baht per dosage, if possible. The entire process would require at least 8-10 years with the total budget of at least 1,500 million baht. Currently, the funding has reached over 100 million baht, and the funding is increasing every day with the hope that they would reach Phase 3 of the developing process by the end of next year.
Dr. Trairak also recommends that everyone could start preventing many types of sickness by starting regular exercise and controlling body weight from now on which would help make our immune system stronger and could possibly preventing cancer from growing. The "Thai version" antibody drug is still in the early developing stage, but from what we have learned from Dr. Trairak, we have realized that, with the advancement in immunotherapy, we have finally see the light at the end of the tunnel for cancer curing.
Everyone Deserves a Chance to Survive from Cancer: How to support and make this cancer-curing project comes true?
To make this medicine comes true for Thai cancer patients and contribute to the future endeavour of cancer immunotherapy research in Thailand, "Chulalongkorn Cancer Immunotherapy Excellence Center" open for donation with the following information:
408-004443-4 (saving account)
045-304669-7 (current account)
Bank: Siam Commercial Bank
Branch: The Thai Red Cross Society
Account name: Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University
Tel: 097-014-4978/ 088-902-2370/ 02-256-4183
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