VARI Research Aligning

March 26, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — It’s one more example of the potential the Van Andel Research Institute has in forming international alliances for collaborative research. 

World-renowned kidney cancer researcher Bin Tean Teh, who leads VARI’s Laboratory of Cancer Genetics, recently returned from a visit to Khan Dean, Thailand, where he met with researchers who are investigating bile duct cancer at a Thailand hospital.

Bile duct cancer is endemic in the northeastern region of Thailand but rare elsewhere. People living in the region eat a lot of raw freshwater fish. It’s an age-old cultural tradition that natives of the region still embrace, Teh noted. There, people’s livelihoods center around agriculture and the population is predominantly poor, so freshwater fish provide an abundant source of cheap food.

Researchers have found a direct link between bile duct cancer and the consumption of raw freshwater fish: The flesh of the fish teems with parasitic flatworms called flukes, which cause infection in organ systems. When ingested, the eggs of the fluke can attach to the bile duct and trigger inflammation. Chronic inflammation, in turn, can cause bile duct cancer.

In northeastern Thailand, there are about 90 cases of bile duct cancer for every 100,000 people, whereas there are only about 0.5 cases of bile duct cancer per every 100,000 people in the greater population, Teh observed. Bile duct cancer is actually preventable: If the people in Khan Dean and neighboring villages in that region cooked the fish first, it would kill the parasite. 

“These are not the kind of people who can afford pork and chicken every day, so for them fish is a cheap, common source of protein,” Teh pointed out. “The tradition of eating raw freshwater fish is very strong.”

The Thai hospital is working through its committees to approve collaboration with VARI on the study, but there is no agreement as yet in place, said Tim Hawkins, communications manager.  

Next, Teh will travel to Singapore to spend some time at the National Cancer Center Singapore/Van Andel Research Institute. Under a three-year agreement signed in February 2007, VARI and NCC officials established the NCCS-VARI Translational Research Program at the cancer center there. The $1.2 million program is being funded by the government of Singapore through the NCCS. Teh directs the operation.

The team is looking at the biology behind varying drug responses in Asian versus non-Asian patients with specific types of cancer.

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