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MCRA SUCCESS STORY : Nethia Mohana Kumaran

For over 10 years, nasopharynx and cervical cancer have been identified to be some of the more common cancers in Malaysia as reported by the Ministry of Health. It is truly a concerning issue which requires appropriate actions to be taken. Dr Nethia Mohana Kumaran, a senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences (SBS) from Universiti Sains Malaysia, is among the many individuals whom have played their part in addressing this issue. Together with her team, they aim to have a better understanding on the survival of nasopharynx and cervical cancer cells.

The BCL-2 pro-survival proteins are frequently upregulated in cancers and are attractive therapeutic targets. Interestingly, different cell populations are addicted to different BCL-2 pro-survival protein(s) for survival. Dr Nethia and her team employ combination of genome editing technology and pharmacological approaches, to delineate pro-survival proteins that nasopharynx and cervical cancer cells are addicted for survival.

According to her, “Our ultimate goal is to shift from the “one size fits all” treatment strategy to optimally targeting pro-survival proteins that cancer cells depend for survival. Targeting relevant proteins would save time, cost and result in better patient outcome”.

Dr Nethia is very keen on developing an affordable cancer drug for the masses. A common problem with cancer drugs especially with small molecule inhibitors is not their effectiveness but affordability. For instance, cisplatin is a standard care treatment for nasopharynx cancer. However, over the time patients tend to develop resistance to this drug. One strategy to resensitise cancer cells to cisplatin is to combine cisplatin with natural compounds. Hence, with this strategy in mind, Dr Nethia and her team are currently studying the sensitivity of nasopharynx cancer cells towards combination of cisplatin and mitragyna alkaloids (purified from local ketum plant). They are also doing some pilot studies to understand mechanism of action of mitragyna alkaloids using computer modelling. This is a significant effort because by employing natural compounds as therapy for cancer, it shall lower the cost of treatment and make it accessible to patients.

She believes that the services provided by MAKNA, such as the MAKNA Cancer Research Award (MCRA), are fantastic efforts which signify their contribution towards the cancer-control community. Furthermore, MCRA acts as a seed grant for young researchers to put their ideas into action, propelling their pilot experiments which then allow them to apply for bigger funding in the future. It also provides visibility for the researcher and their work and this may result in networking with other researchers in the field.

Without a doubt, contribution of women in science has been phenomenal over the years and will continue to be. This is further proved by Emmanuelle Charpentier & Jennifer Doudna, two female researchers who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year. For those who dreams of becoming a researcher, especially girls, Dr Nethia has a special message for you:

“Do not listen to people when they say that a job in science does not pay well and that it’s not exciting. If you are in love with science and research, just find ways to do it. Who knows you could be responsible for the next big discovery.”

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A young man’s brush with testicular cancer

Age is no guarantee for good health. Zuhairi was only 16 years old when he started experiencing frequent fevers. With the high temperature came an abnormal swelling of his right testis, alerting the young man that something was wrong.

“I immediately sought medical help and was scheduled for an ultrasound,” says the now 28-year-old. “The scan indicated the presence of an unusual growth. I was diagnosed with a malignant mixed germ cell tumour.”

This is a rare cancer comprising at least two types of germ cell tumours, which begin in the cells that form the sperm or eggs. They usually occur in the testicle or ovary, but occasionally also affect the chest, abdomen or brain.

Zuhairi was naturally terrified by the diagnosis.

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“After the second cycle, I told my late mother I didn’t want to continue chemo: my hair was falling, I couldn’t sleep and my body was so weak. She was ever compassionate and comforting, and promised that if I went through with the third cycle, it would be my last.”

It was, as the treatment proved successful. The road to recovery was rough but Zuhairi had a strong support system in the form of his family, who rallied around him at his lowest. “I’m very grateful for each and every one of them,” he shares. “They were always there beside me and gave me the strength to carry on.”

Life a decade later looks rather different than it did pre-diagnosis. While cancer can be caused by myriad factors, Zuhairi is careful to pay attention to elements within his control.

“Before all this happened, I didn’t really watch my eating habits or diet, for instance,” he says. “But now I am much more particular about the food I consume. As much as I used to dislike vegetables, I now include them more and more often in my meals. Ultimately, I ensure I look after my health.”

That includes taking charge of self-examinations and paying close attention to his body. Men tend to be more hesitant than women are in seeking medical help, but Zuhairi strongly advocates prioritising medical aid over embarrassment or denial.

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Testicular cancer is relatively uncommon, affecting one in 250 males at some point in their lifetime. The average age of patients upon diagnosis is the mid-30s, but children, teens and older males are also susceptible. However, survival rates are very high, so men are encouraged to seek treatment as early as possible for a smoother recovery.

*Photo shown is not the interview subject.