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Singapore institutes partner with leading academic medical centre in Korea to develop personalised treatment for liver cancer

Translating MicroRNA Research Into Clinical Applications

Scientists and doctors from Singapore institutes are collaborating with Samsung Medical Center (SMC), a leading academic medical centre in Seoul, Republic of Korea, to develop the world’s first clinically reliable and robust platform that will significantly improve the treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) or liver cancer through patient-specific analyses.

The Singapore institutes involved in this multi-institutional effort are A*STAR’s (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), and the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The team aims to set up a joint lab with SMC that is based in Singapore and commence research collaborations with industry for drug development within two years.

The press release states that liver cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths, with approximately 1 million new HCC cases diagnosed annually worldwide. In Singapore, it is the fourth most common cancer among men. If untreated, most patients do not survive beyond six months.

HCC is highly heterogeneous. Therefore, treatment has to be individualised and targeted to be effective. Current systemic treatment for HCC is limited and does not take into consideration genomic differences between different patients. As a result, treatment outcomes generally remain poor.

The new platform will provide reliable and robust patient-specific diagnostic and predictive data in a clinically relevant timeframe of three weeks, versus the typical three to four months. Patient-derived HCC tumour samples will contribute to genomic integration, in vivo model studies (in vivo refers to experimentation using a whole, living organism as opposed to a partial or dead organism) and drug screening data. It will be validated to deliver precision analysis.

“Due to the heterogeneity of liver cancer, there are currently only few drugs with proven efficacy to target it. This new platform will allow researchers and pharmaceutical companies to work together to understand the disease better. We hope this will enable all of us to accelerate the drug development and expand treatment options for HCC patients,” said Associate Professor William Hwang, Medical Director of NCCS.

The collaboration leverages the strengths of current programmes in both countries – mainly the Translational and Clinical Research (TCR) Flagship Programme for Liver Cancer in Singapore, and the Refractory Cancer Research Programme of SMC, called AVATAR platform, in the Republic of Korea.

The AVATAR platform, based on AVATAR Mouse® and AVATASCAN® was developed with strong support from the Korean government’s Ministry of Health and Welfare to provide treatment solutions for refractory cancer patients.

The TCR Flagship Programme has uncovered useful drug targets that provide critical data for drug development and precision medicine, will combine the expertise of other programmes at the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore (CSI Singapore), GIS and IMCB to re-position the AVATAR platform developed at SMC for disease areas ranging from brain cancer to HCC.

AVATASCAN® is automated drug screening system of patient-derived cells for genome based drug treatment suggestion. It is comprised of a robotic system for rapid screening of drug panel on refractory cancers (a cancer is said to be refractory when it does not respond to or is resistant to cancer treatment) including glioblastoma (aggressive cancer that begins with the brain), metastatic brain cancer and recurrent cancer. AVATASCAN® integrates gene-drug response and genomic analysis to suggest the most optimal treatment option for the patients.

AVATAR Mouse® is a patient Derived Xenograft (a tissue graft or organ transplant from a donor of a different species from the recipient) model where immunodeficient mice are implanted with patient-derived tissue specimens that have been removed surgically. It can recapitulate the genome, histopathology and biology of patient-derived tumor in situ. SMC has a variety of AVATAR Mouse® for different cancers such as glioblastoma, gastric cancer, etc.

“While Singapore has achieved much excellence in upstream and translational research in HCC, this initiative brings together the strengths of our institutions, combining the efforts of the existing flagship programme in Liver Cancer with other programmes,” said Professor Pierce Chow, who is the Lead Principal Investigator of this initiative. Professor Chow is also Surgical Director of the Comprehensive Liver Cancer Clinic at NCCS, a Professor and Course Director at the Duke-NUS Medical School, and an Associate Faculty Member at GIS.

“When three of the top cancer centres in Asia come together with A*STAR to deal with a cancer that primarily affects Asians, I am confident that we will change clinical practice, treat liver cancer better, and save many lives,” commented Dr. Benjamin Seet, Executive Director of A*STAR’s Biomedical Research Council.

“SMC has made continuous investment in the establishment of infrastructure for precision medicine,” said Professor O Jung Kwon, President of SMC. “Through this partnership, we are expecting to build a firm global network for precision medicine and hope to be able to provide the world’s best genome based personalised treatment for liver cancer patients.”

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