Sarawak-born doctor behind ground-breaking cancer therapy

KUCHING: A revolutionary drug for cancer treatment, developed by Sarawak-born Professor Dr David Huang and a Melbourne team, has been by approved for use in Australia last week.

The decision by the country’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) follows fast-tracked approval for the drug in the United States and the European Union.

Dr Huang and his team of medical researchers made the breakthrough which succeeded in blocking the cancer-sustaining BCL-2 protein – a discovery that has eluded medical researchers around the world for the past 30 years.

Official approval of the drug will make it available for some stage four patients of chronic lymphocytic leukemia who have not responded to standard treatments or are unable to undergo other therapies such as chemotherapy.

Professor Andrew Roberts of the Royal Melbourne Hospital hailed the breakthrough, saying, “Ongoing research suggests that this drug will be very active against other cancers, so this milestone may just be the beginning.”

Venetoclax – taken as a tablet once a day – has resulted in positive results for 80 per cent of trial patients. Twenty per cent were found to be in complete remission.

Prior research found that the BCL-2 molecule, which enables cancer cells to survive, is overactive in many types of cancers, particularly leukemia.

Following last week’s TGA announcement, Dr Huang appeared on ABC television and explained that his team “designed the drug to specifically inhibit BCL-2 function and essentially it’s designed to trigger cancer cells to commit cell suicide.”

The ground-breaking discovery also won the team the 2016 Eureka Prize which honours outstanding scientific achievements in Australia.

The award citation read: “The work undertaken by Professor David Huang and his team has transformed a basic Australian research discovery into a new cancer therapy approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Central to the achievement is the development of a novel class of targeted anticancer drug, the BH3 mimetic compounds.”

55-year-old Dr Huang received his primary and secondary education at St Joseph’s School, Kuching.

The London-trained doctor and researcher is now based in the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Australia’s oldest medical research institute.

Two of his St Joseph’s schoolmates who met him in Melbourne last month said he spoke fondly about his younger days in Kuching.

When contacted yesterday with congratulations, a surprised Dr Huang told The Borneo Post he was humbled by “your kind words.”

Rather than writing about him, he pleaded that “perhaps the focus can be around (other) Sarawakians making big contributions or his younger colleagues.”

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