TMU alumnus wins global award for cancer breakthrough

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Dr. Kelvin Tsai is used to acclaim – a press release about his most recent paper inspired some twenty news stories published around the world, and he recently returned from accepting the Breast Journal Award from WISE Blackwell publishers at a Florida ceremony.

Some two decades after low-dose “metronomic” oral cancer meds were first found effective, less unpleasant and potentially much cheaper than injected chemotherapy agents, they’re finally being taken seriously — because Dr. Tsai discovered the “why” of their greater effectiveness.

Taipei Medical University (TMU) is where he received his medical training, but Dr. Tsai took a long road through Harvard and the University of California before returning to establish a joint TMU cancer lab that cooperates with his National Health Research Institutes (NHRI) team in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

In a recent issue of Journal of Experimental Medicine, his team’s findings showed the previously unknown role of the stroma that surrounds and supports tumors. Dr. Tsai said this is often fibrotic tissue, like the lumps women check for in breast self-exams.

Five years ago, he began researching stromatic changes in mice, studying cancer stem cells and immune cells during conventional “maximum tolerated dose” (MTD) chemotherapy. He watched the dramatic expansion of cancer stem cells as macrophages become immunosuppressive between treatments, and levels of protective T cells (familiar as an index of HIV/AIDS progression) also fell between conventionally timed treatments as a result of “stromatic activation.”

These problems were reduced by low-dose metronomic treatments, with less resistance between cycles. Such oral medicines not only prolong lives and cut costs, but also are tolerated more easily by patients, who no longer have the prospect of debilitating reactions after intravenously infused medications at longer intervals – because the “maximum tolerated dose” is frequently unpleasant or even dangerous for patients.

Dr. Tsai was quite candid about the “conservative” bias of the pharmacological establishment keeping this alternative out of reach for twenty years after metronomic treatment was proposed. After all, the conventional patents they hold are big money-makers, so for that reason they prefer injectable drugs. As a result, he said, most oral medications are being developed in Asia, not by the Big Pharma companies of the West.

After returning to his alma mater, Dr. Tsai continues working with his longtime lab in Hsinchu, and his team on campus Skypes regularly with both San Francisco and Zhunan, where a larger team manages his studies that involve animals and different equipment. Plans are ready for TMU to build a state-of-the-art new Cancer Research Center, which in due course will better support Dr. Tsai’s ambition in combating cancer.

A huge multicenter clinical trial will be led by TMU and use an oral drug from a Taiwan company that can be used for a new metronomic chemotherapy regimen in the treatment of various types of solid cancers. And eventually, millions of cancer patients around the world can look forward to an affordable pill daily, instead of agonizing weekly infusions of a “maximum tolerable dose” of less-effective cancer drugs.

Visit Taipei Medical University for further information.