In pursuit of cancer

Sudjit Luanpitpong at work. L’Oreal (Thailand)

Sudjit Luanpitpong is a biological scientist who does not look like a biological scientist. First, she is young and carefree. And second, she doesn’t look like a nerd. But once she begins to explain her research project, she talks pure science.

“One of the challenges as a young scientist is that sometimes I have to try harder than others in my profession to communicate and make people understand my thoughts because age can be a barrier when it comes to convincing people,” said the 32-year-old scientist and senior researcher from Siriraj Centre of Excellence for Stem Cell Research under Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine, Siriraj Hospital.

Sudjit is one of the three recipients of this year’s L’Oreal (Thailand) “For Women in Science” Fellowships. Now in its 14th year, the award aims to support and praise the role of women for the sustainable development in the scientific sector in Thailand. Each grant was assessed by a jury committee of respectable members from various scientific fields. Selection criteria was based on the benefits of the research, accurate methodologies and peer acceptance.

Among this year’s 50 applicants, Sudjit sailed through, winning herself the 250,000-baht grant in the Life Science category. The other two recipients are Nadnudda Rodthongkum in the material science and Supawadee Namuangruk in the chemistry category. The award announcement ceremony was held late last month. Sudjit is the youngest scientist to have won the For Women in Science Fellowship since the programme’s inception 14 years ago.

Frankly speaking, Sudjit’s award-winning research is not easy to understand as ABC especially for non-scientists — even after she tried to clarify her work using layman’s terms. But basically, it addresses non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), the most common haematologic cancer that originates in the lymphatic system.

“The research attempts to understand the aggressive [type of] lymphoma [cancer that begins in infection-fighting cells of the immune system called lymphocytes],” she explained. “The disease usually sees clinical obstacles due to the ineffectiveness of medication and resistance to chemotherapy. The research focuses on cancer stem cells, which possess the ability to proliferate and become cancer cells. These [cancer stem] cells are worth studying as even though medication can kill normal cancer cells if cancer stem cells are still alive, they will grow. And it will look like all the treatments fail.”

The research, she added, will then see what factors contribute to the proliferation of cancer stem cells so that the best treatment approach can be designed to tackle the problem at its root.

Although the prevalence of NHL is not high in Thailand or globally, it is one of the most severe types of cancer. Sudjit hopes her understanding of the behaviour of the NHL cancer cells could be a stepping stone in treating other less serious cancers.

“NHL is Thailand’s most commonly found blood-related cancer but quantitatively speaking, this type of malignancy is not common. But it is serious and quite difficult to treat. Survival rate is usually no longer than two to three years.”

Sudjit’s research to find out the most effective approach to cancer treatment is still in its preclinical stage, which still has a long way to go before it actually comes into practice. “We study the gene level to first understand how the disease originates. The next step is to design treatment plans that directly target the cause of the malignancy.”

“So the end result is not medication, but the best way possible to treat lymphoma,” she added.

From 2009-2014, the scientist had served as a research scholar and research assistant professor at the Department of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences at West Virginia University. With her academic and career background from the United States, she has seen both similarities and differences in terms of cancer care there and in Thailand. While standard of treatments is pretty much the same, medical practice in the United States might be deeper in detail.

“When attending each cancer patient, doctors in the United States will first conduct screening on the gene level to understand the pattern of cancer in each particular case,” the researcher explained. “Then treatments and medication will be prescribed based on individual variability in genes. This approach is called precision medicine — like customised treatments. Here in Thailand, such an approach is still in its research phase.”

“There are also obvious differences when it comes to research and development,” she added. “In the pharmaceutical sector, for example, drug companies focus on sales and marketing. In the United States, they pay considerable attention to research and development, which is a billion-dollar investment and subsequently will be quite hard to achieve in Thailand.”

One of the drawbacks of RD in Thailand, said Sudjit, is the lack of financial support from the public and private sectors. From her experience, she sees L’Oreal (Thailand) as probably the only private organisation to have provided financial aid to researchers and scientists without complicated post-fellowship requirements. Scientists who receive state grants are, on the contrary, required to submit numerous reports and sometimes this is such a waste of time and resources.

“Scientific research especially in biology does require a large budget,” she admitted. “A tube of chemical substance, for instance, might cost up to 30,000 baht and can only be used 10 times. Some machines and equipment might also cost up to 20 million baht. Funding means a lot to us researchers.”

Today female researchers and scientists make up a huge part of the pie when compared to other countries. At Siriraj Centre of Excellence for Stem Cell Research, for example, Sudjit said up to 90% of the scientists are female. She wishes the hard work and dedication by people in the scientific field earns more recognition, regardless of age and gender.

“Receiving the [For Women in Science] grant does not just mean we have more money to further our work. It also uplifts the spirit of research assistants and science students so that they have more passion for what they are doing. It is like in the end people are aware of what we do. Our devotion is eventually worthwhile.”

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