Chinese academician awarded 2018 Sjöberg Prize for curing deadly blood cancer
A Chinese academician was recently awarded the 2018 Sjöberg Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, once again drawing worldwide attention to the “Chinese therapy” that has cured a specific acute leukemia that used to be one of the most deadly types of cancer, reported the Guang Ming Daily, a national Chinese-language newspaper.

According to the report, Chen Zhu, a Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) academician and his team with the Shanghai Institute of Hematology had spent over three decades, resorted to oriental wisdom to “rectify” cancer cells, which treatment could now cure over 90 percent of patients with the blood cancer, called acute promyelocytic leukemia.

Chen Saijuan, a Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) academician and one of the key members of Chen Zhu's team, emphasized that the success is attributable to an “oriental thinking mode” deep-rooted in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) featuring dialectical treatment, combination therapy, acclimation and curing ills with poison.

In the 1980s, chemotherapy was mainly used to kill cancer cells. With the category being also the only standard treatment for blood cancer, more than 75 percent of patients with the acute promyelocytic leukemia died within two years, according to data from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Under the circumstances, Chen Zhu and his team posed a significant question - “Is it that all parts of the killed cancer cells have gone rogue or there is only partial genetic mutation and faulty protein?”

Tumor cells renew themselves indefinitely, and they could not function well because the process of cellular differentiation and maturation is compromised. In this sense, the cancer cells, especially blood cancer cells, are “young and naive”, explained Chen Saijuan. Her team then made a bold speculation the cells may be “rectified” if they lose the ability to renew themselves and the process to differentiate and making them mature could be resumed.

In mid-1980s, the team luckily identified a cure based on a form of vitamin A, called all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA). Although the cure was proven to be quite effective at the beginning, several months later, the magic medication lost its potency due to development of resistance, and many patients experienced reoccurrence of the cancer. The team realized they needed a combination treatment to fight the disease.

After finding out that Professor Zhang Tingdong of northeast China's Harbin Medical University was using arsenic trioxide to treat the disease, the two teams began to work together. They jointly verified the curative effect of the toxic arsenic compound in treating the specific blood cancer.

By 2000, Chen Zhu's team could cure 9 out of 10 patients with the once fatal cancer using the combined therapy of retinoic acid and arsenic trioxide. Clinical experiments implemented by foreign medical specialists also verified the treatment to be effective. Gaining international recognition, the “Chinese therapy” gradually became a standard treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia.

Four generations of scientists hailing from the Shanghai Institute of Hematology, China's most prestigious blood research institute and an affiliation of Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Ruijin Hospital have worked strenuously on finding the Chinese cure.

Wang Zhenyi, former head of the Shanghai Institute of Hematology and academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, had successively instructed Chen Zhu, Chen Saijuan and Chen Guoqiang who is also a CAS academician. Continuous efforts put in by the teacher and his three students led to success in finding the cure to the disease.

In 1979, Wang Zhenyi first proposed the theory of “induced differentiation”, also called differentiation therapy, an approach to treating acute leukemia in which malignant tumor cells are induced by pharmacological agents to differentiate into more mature forms. Basic ideas about the therapy are inspired by the knowledge that leukemia cells fail to differentiate and fully mature.

Wang tried to transform malignant tumor cells into normal ones, providing a totally new approach to treating the then deadly cancer. In 1988, he published a paper in the academic journal Blood about the clinical application of all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA), creating a stir in the international blood research circle. ATRA was first found to be an effective differentiation agent in treating acute promyelocytic leukemia.

Although the targeted therapy had gained encouraging clinical results, Wang Zhenyi sought to be clear about mechanisms responsible for the disease and he left the work to Chen Zhu and Chen Saijuan. Ten years later, the teacher's two students successfully clarified the cancer's molecular mechanisms, adopted oriental thought of “fighting poison with poison” to combine the ATRA and arsenic trioxide therapies.

What the Chinese medical experts of the Shanghai Institute of Hematology have accomplished over the past several decades significantly carries forward development of Transitional Medicine (TM) in the world.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the idea of “transitional medicine” was first proposed by the National Institutes of Health in the US, and now it has become mainstream in the world's medical research. The core idea of TM is to construct a “fast track” from lab to sickbed, transforming basic research findings efficiently into tools, techniques, therapies, and medicines applied bedside.

The success of “Chinese therapy” in treating acute promyelocytic leukemia demonstrates combining lab research and clinical practice could bring revolutionary results. According to Chen Saijuan, they're trying to cure other types of blood cancer based on the successful research results and practices, setting goals to cure half of leukemia patients by 2025 and generally all of them by 2035.

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