Funding, tissue samples needed

SINGAPORE - Doctors and scientists here are charting new territory in cancer research, work that would have been impossible without generous funding and patients who agree to donate their tissue samples.

Yet unlike in the West, getting people to donate tissue samples and raising money for such efforts are more of a challenge, they say.

In just three years, a group led by Professor Teh Bin Tean of the National Cancer Centre Singapore and Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School has made many breakthroughs in cancer research, particularly for cancers prevalent in the region.

The team from the cancer centre, Singapore General Hospital and Duke-NUS has published papers in leading journals and identified hundreds of novel genes that are mutated in cancers, as well as potential drugs to treat them.

Its work would have been impossible without donated tissue, which would otherwise be thrown away after an operation.

This material is invaluable for scientists who are researching better treatments for the disease, said Associate Professor Tan Soo Yong, director of the SingHealth Tissue Repository.

"The key to understanding cancer and other diseases resides in the cancer tissue. The genetic changes and the protein expression in diseased tissues can shed light on the cause of the disease and provide the chance to develop a cure," he said.

"To do that, scientists need to study tissue samples to improve our understanding of the disease, especially from the local population, since patients here may present and respond differently compared with those in the West."

Patients must agree to donate any leftover surgical material for research that can benefit future patients.

Like Prof Teh's group, researchers here are using blood and tissue samples to study a range of conditions, from ageing to mental illness, and look at how one's genes and the environment work together to cause disease.

Highlighting the need for funding, Associate Professor Lim Soon Thye, from the cancer centre's Medical Oncology Department, said his team's work was jump-started with a $450,000 donation by a trust of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

"Just as it is important to donate to needy patients, we hope that more people will recognise the importance and value of donating to research, which has a multiplier effect. With no research, there can be no new treatments down the line," he said.

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