Cheong Sok Ching
Senior Group Leader, Head and Neck Cancer Research
Cancer Research Malaysia
Asian Scientist Magazine (Nov. 4, 2022) — Most of us have come across a family member, a friend or a colleague who had to battle cancer. The disease has one of the highest mortality rates for noncommunicable 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 racing to develop more effective treatments that could precisely target the very mechanisms that allow cancer to develop and progress.
One such researcher is Professor Cheong Sok Ching. She is a cancer geneticist and the senior group leader for head and neck cancer research in Cancer Research Malaysia, an independent non-profit research organization based in Malaysia. Cheong has dedicated her entire life’s work to combating cancer in her homeland.
Since 2018, Cheong’s team has been collaborating with researchers from Malaysia and the United Kingdom to develop a DNA cancer vaccine that targets two specific genes– MAGED4B and FJX1. These genes are responsible for promoting the growth of tumors in head and neck of people. The vaccine uses these genes as an antigen, training the body’s own immune cells to recognize and hunt down head and neck cancer cells that overexpress these genes. The vaccine is likely to undergo the first phase of clinical trials soon.
Cheong spoke with Asian Scientist Magazine about her experience developing this vaccine with collaborators around the world, prevalence of head and neck cancers in Asia, the importance of early investment in drug R&D and her passion to show that impactful research can be conducted in Malaysia, by Malaysians, for Malaysians and beyond.
- Cancer Research Malaysia (CRM) has been getting a lot of media attention since it announced that a head and neck cancer vaccine from the institute will be undergoing clinical trials. Why focus on head and neck cancers?
Head and neck cancers are predominantly diagnosed among Asians. Two out of three patients who are diagnosed with head and neck cancers in the world are from Asia, and nearly three out of four deathsfrom these cancers are estimated to happen in Asia. So, this is essentially an Asian cancer. There’s less incentive for Western countries to invest in these cancers, because first of all, this is not a problem in their backyard. Second, even if they have the drugs to treat the cancers, they don’t have many patients to test these drugs on because it’s not a common cancer in the West.
That’s why CRM exists. We make sure that Asians don’t get left out in the fight against cancer.
- Tell us about your vaccine collaboration with researchers in the UK, and why external collaboration was needed?
The head and neck cancer vaccine development was done with University of Southampton in the UK. The project was financed by the Malaysian government through 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, currently, our R&D ecosystem is not as 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 pretty difficult for us to get our vaccine licensed. Although I think there’s a lot of emphasis and investment in trying to mature the research ecosystem in Malaysia, we’re not there yet.Hopefully our experience working closely with our vaccine licensee and our UK partners could also inform us about how to get our next cancer vaccine in the pipeline, because this is not our only vaccine in development.
- The head and neck cancer vaccine is about to undergo ‘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 kickstart a vaccine R&D pipeline, partly as a response to delays in obtaining vaccines during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts on the launch of this roadmap?
I think we learnt many lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic. I mean, we have to anticipate what’s the next thing that’s going to happen, and we have to prepare for that. Many countries, including Malaysia, lately say, “We have to be prepared now.” And they say this because they saw how BioNTech, the pharmaceutical company that teamed up 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 why they could launch it in months is because their work was done years and years ahead, since 2008.
It’s great that we are now launching National Vaccine Development Program. But I do need to emphasize that we don’t wait until a pandemic happens before we do research. We have 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 endemic to Malaysia.I hope that our efforts in developing and licensing out the vaccine technology demonstrate that early investment in research and development and translating the work from the lab to industry can make a positive impact on public health outcomes.
- Did you face any major difficulties through the research and development process of making the vaccine?
One of the bigger difficulties we faced was obtaining funds for the ‘First-in-Man’ trials. Really, throughout our entire time conducting the research and subsequently licensing out the technology 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 reliant on crowdfunding to source more funds to push forward with our first clinical trials.
Another more pressing issue we constantly face, even after we secure these grants, is that it’s 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, the 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 major factors behind this small talent pool is the weakening Ringgit and the less mature R&D ecosystem here. I really do understand why they choose to go abroad. But I want to show Malaysian scientists that it is possible to conduct ground-breaking research that greatly benefits the public here in Malaysia. And that it’s also possible for someone with a local degree to be a 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 in a local university. There are a lot of barriers: precuring materials and reagents can take up to four weeks. But I had a chance to do a split-site PhD and spend some time in London in St. George’s Hospital. That 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 the reason why I’m back here, you know, I’m trying to change things.I want to be a part of this change that sees Malaysia’s research ecosystem grow and thrive. At the end of the day, Malaysia is my tanah air (homeland).
- What message would you like to convey to younger Malaysian scientists who are on the fence about returning home?
Cancer Research Malaysia’s success is one of many success stories of Malaysian research. I hope such stories help create a spark in Malaysian scientists to return home and become part of the country’s burgeoning research movement, propelling it forward. So hopefully, that message will come true. We can do something here in Malaysia for Malaysians and Asians. We can get things done here.
(Responses 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