Tang Prize in biopharma science goes to 3 cancer researchers

Image taken from Tang Prize (tang-prize.org)

Taipei, June 19 (CNA) Three world-leading scientists, Tony Hunter, Brian Druker and John Mendelsohn, have won the 2018 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science for their breakthroughs in developing targeted cancer therapies, the Tang Prize Selection Committee announced Tuesday.

Their research and findings of protein tyrosine phosphorylation and tyrosine kinases as oncogenes have led to successful targeted cancer therapies, according to the committee.

The three winners, all Americans, have shown how basic science can lead to clinical applications that benefit all mankind, said Chang Wen-chang (張文昌), a member of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica and the convener of the selection committee, at a press event in Taipei.

According to the selection committee, Hunter demonstrated that a mechanism called tyrosine phosphorylation acts as a master on/off switch for a number of key proteins that are critical for successful cancer therapies.

Hunter, a professor of biology at the U.S.-based Salk Institute, gave birth to the field of targeted therapies after discovering in 1979 the mechanism of tyrosine phosphorylation and that the oncogene Src is a tyrosine kinase.

The historic discovery paved the way for active research in the following two decades on tyrosine kinase oncogenes, ultimately leading to the development of TKIs (tyrosine kinase inhibitors). The current success of targeted therapy owes a great deal to him, according to the committee.

Based on Hunter’s discovery, Druker, the director of Oregon Health & Science University’s Knight Cancer Institute, led the successful clinical trial of the cancer-fighting drug called imatinib (Gleevec®).

The drug turned chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a cancer that once had a very low survival rate, into a manageable condition.

According to the committee, Gleevec shuts off oncogenic signals by inhibiting Abl-protein tyrosine kinases as predicted by Hunter’s original research.

Gleevec has also been successfully used in the treatment of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and certain types of gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) by inhibiting other tyrosine kinase oncoproteins.

Currently, there are more than 26 TKIs which have been approved for clinical use. All of the discoveries have Druker’s first successful trials to thank because they spurred this still burgeoning targeted therapy era, according to the committee.

Meanwhile, John Mendelsohn, president emeritus of MD Anderson Cancer Center, took another approach to combating cancer while working with Gordon Sato at UC San Diego.

According to the committee, an alternative way of shutting off the activities of tyrosine kinases on the cell surface (receptor tyrosine kinase) is to develop antibodies against the extracellular domain of the receptor.

In such a way, the natural ligand, or growth factor, can no longer bind and the receptor tyrosine kinase is no longer activated.

Mendelsohn and his team came up with the idea that antibodies targeting epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) may be an effective strategy for cancer treatment.

Mendelsohn led his team in conducting preclinical research and proceeded to develop the anti-EGFR antibody cetuximab (Erbitux®), which eventually won FDA approval for the treatment of colon cancer and head/neck cancer.

Erbitux® was the first clinically approved therapy based on receptor tyrosine kinase-targeting antibodies and a trail-blazer that has led many others to follow, the committee said.

In sum, the selection committee said the discovery of protein tyrosine phosphorylation and tyrosine kinases “sowed the seeds for research in the ensuing 40 years, leading to a thorough understanding of the fundamental principles of cell growth and cancer development.”

“The development of tyrosine kinase targeted therapies has fundamentally changed the practices of cancer clinics. It provides great benefits to patients who suffer from this dreadful disease and gives hope that cancer can eventually be treated,” it said.

The Tang Prize (唐獎), established by Samuel Yin (尹衍樑), chairman of the Ruentex Group, is a set of biennial international awards bestowed in four fields — sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology, and rule of law.

Nominations and selections are conducted by an independent selection committee, with input from Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top research institution.

(By Joseph Yeh)