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Rotary’s support could see cancer cure in 10-15 years
Rotarians on both sides of the Tasman are being urged to support New
Zealand reconstructive plastic surgeon and research scientist, Dr Swee Tan,
whose ground-breaking research into cancer may produce a cure for the disease
in 10-15 years.
Dr Tan is the Founder and Executive Director of the Gillies McIndoe
Research Institute (GMRI), based in Wellington, New Zealand.
He and colleagues are pioneering an
innovative field of cellular and molecular research that international
experts have labelled a ‘paradigm shift’.
Dr Tan believes the GMRI’s work could lead to a cure for cancer in under
“Based on our discoveries, and the work currently underway, I believe
that timeframe is possible,” he says.
“I believe we are on the right path.It’s a function of having the funding and the resourcing to continue –
and accelerate – our work.”
Dr Tan and his team and collaborators at the GMRI are world famous for
their work on strawberry birthmark.
Not only did they find that stem cells arising from the placenta are the origin of strawberry
birthmark, a vascular tumour that affects newborns, but they also
discovered that those stem cells are regulated by the body’s renin-angiotensin
They succeeded in
transforming strawberry birthmark stem cells into harmless fat cells, bone
cells and red blood cells. Their discoveries underpin new treatments of strawberry
birthmark by manipulating
the hormone system that triggers the tumour to ‘commit suicide’ and self-destruct.
“The discoveries we have made in strawberry birthmarks have given us
insights into cancer. If we can do that for strawberry birthmark tumours, the
logical conclusion is that we can achieve it for other tumours as well,” Dr Tan
“We just need to identify the relevant regulatory systems within the
body that control cancer stem cells.”
In additional to his work with
the GMRI, Dr Tan has provided surgical services for free to the Rotary Overseas
Medical Aid Corps (ROMAC).He was made a
Paul Harris Fellow in 2008 and was the keynote speaker at the 2014 Rotary
International Institute conference in Wellington.
The past Governor of District 9940 and conference organiser, Pat Waite,
says Dr Tan’s keynote presentation was rated the best by conference delegates.
“Over 80 percent of those surveyed noted Dr Tan’s presentation exceeded
expectations, a remarkable result,” Pat says.
Now Pat’s urging Rotarians to support Dr Tan and his team to help
progress their work on cancer stem cells, which are thought to be the driving
force behind the development and progression of cancer.
The cancer stem cell concept proposes that all cancerous tumours
comprise two types of cells:
·Cancer cells that form the majority of cells within
a cancerous tumour.These cells possess
little to no self-renewal capacity and spontaneously die out quickly.They are traditionally treated by surgery,
radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
·A small number of highly malignant cancer stem
cells that have unlimited self-renewal capacity as well as the ability to
generate cancer cells.These cancer stem
cells resist radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which explains why cancers often
relapse following conventional treatments.
Dr Tan explains this concept with the analogy of a beehive.
“The hive has lots of worker bees, which are the cancer cells.These worker bee cancer cells are made
quickly, but they have a limited life-span.
“But the cancer stem cells are the hive’s queen bee.They direct the hive and produce the worker
bees, but more importantly they have an unlimited capacity to replicate
themselves, producing even more queen bees which, in turn, produce more worker
bees. These queen bees can migrate to other sites and start new hives.
“And as yet, medical science does not know how to control or manage
these queen bee cancer stem cells and that’s why the cure for cancer remains
beyond our reach.
“But I believe we will find the control mechanisms because our work in
strawberry birthmark tumours has provided a lot of insights into how this can
be achieved in cancer.”