Cheong Sok Ching
Senior group leader, head and neck cancer research
Cancer Research Malaysia
Asian Scientist Magazine (4 Nov 2022) — Most of us have come across a family member, friend or colleague who had to fight cancer. The disease has one of the highest mortality rates for non-communicable diseases globally. Nearly 10 million deaths worldwide in 2020 were due to cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Although there are many treatments to help patients recover, researchers are still in the process of developing more effective treatments that could precisely target the mechanisms that allow cancer to develop and progress.
One such researcher is Professor Cheong Sok Ching. She is a cancer geneticist and senior head and neck cancer research group leader at Cancer Research Malaysia, an independent non-profit research organization based in Malaysia. Cheong has dedicated his entire life’s work to fighting cancer in his home country.
Since 2018, Cheong’s team has collaborated with researchers from Malaysia and the UK to develop a DNA cancer vaccine that targets two specific genes – MAGED4B and FJX1. These genes are responsible for promoting the growth of head and neck tumors in humans. The vaccine uses these genes as an antigen and trains the body’s own immune cells to recognize and hunt head and neck cancer cells that overexpress these genes. The vaccine is likely to undergo the first phase of clinical trials soon.
Cheong spoke along Asian Scientist Magazine about her experience developing this vaccine with collaborators around the world, the incidence of head and neck cancer in Asia, the importance of early investment in drug R&D and her passion to show that impactful research can be done in Malaysia , by Malaysians, for Malaysians and elsewhere. .
- Cancer Research Malaysia (CRM) has received a lot of media attention since it announced that a head and neck cancer vaccine from the institute will undergo clinical trials. Why focus on head and neck cancer?
Head and neck cancer is predominantly diagnosed among Asians. Two out of three patients diagnosed with head and neck cancer in the world are from Asia, and almost three out of four deaths from these cancers are estimated to occur in Asia. So this is essentially an Asian cancer. There is less incentive for Western countries to invest in these cancers because, for one thing, this is not a problem in their backyard. Second, even if they have the drugs to treat cancer, they don’t have many patients to test these drugs on because it’s not a common cancer in the West.
This is why CRM exists. We are making sure that Asians are not left out in the fight against cancer.
- Tell us about your vaccine collaboration with researchers in the UK and why external collaboration was necessary?
The development of the head and neck cancer vaccine was carried out with the University of Southampton in the UK. The project was funded by the Malaysian government through the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia, and the Medical Research Council, UK. It’s so important to have this kind of collaboration because we hope to bring the trials here – this is where the head and neck cancer patients are.
For Malaysian researchers, our R&D ecosystem is currently not that developed in terms of licensing medical biologics to pharma companies. And if we didn’t have a presence in the UK through our collaborator, it would be quite difficult for us to get our vaccine licensed. While I think there is a lot of emphasis and investment in trying to mature the research ecosystem in Malaysia, we are not there yet. Hopefully, our experience working closely with our vaccine licensees and our UK partners can also inform us how we get our next cancer vaccine on the way, because it’s not our only vaccine in development.
- The head and neck cancer vaccine is undergoing ‘first-in-human’ trials as part of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science and Technology’s joint roadmap called the National Vaccine Development Program. The program was launched as a way for Malaysia to kick-start a vaccine R&D pipeline, partly in response to delays in getting vaccines during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts on the launch of this roadmap?
I think we learned a lot of lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic. I mean, we have to anticipate what’s going to happen next and we have to prepare for it. Many countries, including Malaysia, are saying lately: “We must be prepared now.” And they say this because they saw how BioNTech, the pharmaceutical company that partnered with Pfizer to create one of the first mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, was able to launch their COVID-19 vaccine in months and not years, which is what people expect when developing a new drug. But the reason they were able to launch it in months is because their work was done years and years in advance, since 2008.
It is great that we are now launching the National Vaccine Development Program. But I have to stress that we don’t wait for a pandemic to happen before we do research. We need to invest in the technology and research now to prepare for the future. Although our vaccine is not for infectious diseases, the technology behind the vaccine can easily be used to target infectious diseases that are endemic in Malaysia. I hope that our efforts to develop and license the vaccine technology demonstrate that early investment in research and development and the translation of work from the laboratory to industry can have a positive impact on public health.
- Did you face any major difficulties during the research and development process of making the vaccine?
One of the major difficulties we faced was raising funds for the ‘First-in-Man’ trials. In fact, throughout our time conducting the research and subsequently licensing the technology out to a pharmaceutical company, one of the main blocks we had to face was funding. We are grateful that we were able to obtain the Newton-Ungku Omar Fund along with a few more grants from the UK Government and the Canadian Government, but we are also relying on crowdfunding to raise more funds to push forward with our first clinical trial.
Another more pressing problem we constantly face, even after securing these grants, is that it is still difficult to hire more local researchers to work on these projects. The research talent pool in Malaysia is very small. Many Malaysian scientists tend to go abroad to the US, UK and even to neighboring Singapore as the research ecosystem is more mature, more developed there.
- What are your thoughts on why the research talent pool is small in Malaysia?
You know, there could be many reasons, but just some of the main factors behind this small talent pool are the weakened Ringgit and the less mature R&D ecosystem here. I really understand why they choose to go abroad. But I want to show Malaysian scientists that it is possible to carry out ground-breaking research that greatly benefits the public here in Malaysia. And that it is also possible for someone with a local degree to be part of this research.
I graduated from the National University of Malaysia. You know, I don’t have fancy Oxbridge credentials. So I know exactly what it’s like to work at a local university. There are many barriers: Pre-treatment of materials and reagents can take up to four weeks. But I had a chance to do a shared Ph.D. and spend some time in London at St. George’s Hospital. It gave me an opportunity to see how science should be done. The research environment is well developed there, and academia and industry constantly engage with each other. That’s why I’m back here, you know, I’m trying to change things. I want to be a part of this change that makes Malaysia’s research ecosystem grow and thrive. At the end of the day, Malaysia is min tanah air (fatherland).
- What message would you like to convey to young Malaysian scientists who are on the fence about returning home?
Cancer research Malaysia’s success is one of many success stories in Malaysian research. I hope stories like these help create a spark in Malaysian scientists to return home and become part of the country’s burgeoning research movement, driving it forward. So hopefully that message comes true. We can do something here in Malaysia for Malaysians and Asians. We can get things done here.
(Answers were edited for length and clarity.)
This article is from a regular series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. click here to read other articles in this series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Cancer Research Malaysia