Speech by President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the European Society for Medical Oncology – Asia Congress 2015

Distinguished Faculty

Ladies and Gentlemen

First let me extend a warm welcome to all the participants, particularly those from overseas, of the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Asia Congress 2015. Singapore is pleased to host this inaugural Asian meeting of the ESMO.

Cancer burden in Asia has been growing exponentially due to ageing and growing populations, tobacco use, and increasing rates of obesity. In Singapore, cancer is already our top killer, and accounts for almost one third of all deaths.

Singapore has been investing heavily in biomedical, translational and clinical research, with cancer being one of the priority areas. More recently, we have also put in place measures to nurture a pool of clinician scientists, who can undertake both translational and clinical research. Platforms have also been created to encourage the collaboration of clinicians and scientists for the creation of quality healthcare solutions for cancer patients.  For example, the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium, comprising clinicians and scientists from universities, research institutes and hospitals across Singapore, is working on gastric cancer translational research to solve important clinical questions and improve the care of gastric cancer patients.

I am pleased to note that these investments are paying off. Healthcare institutions in Singapore have made progress in cancer research and are contributing to the global effort for cures for cancer.  For example, through expanding and genetically modifying immune cells, Prof Dario Campana at the National University Health System was able to develop new methods on cell-based therapies for a range of cancers, including leukaemia, breast, gastric and head and neck cancers.  His findings have resulted in several publications, filing of patents, and the formation of a start-up company.  His team has also established large-scale clinical-grade conditions to implement these methods, and initiated six cell-based clinical protocols currently open for patient accrual.

Another example is in the area of immunotherapy. A trial conducted in 2009 by Dr Toh Han Chong of the National Cancer Centre Singapore used immunotherapy to fight advanced nose cancer.  Results of the trial were promising -the median overall life survival was increased to 30 months from 12 to 18 months. Last month, these results were highlighted at the inaugural International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference held in New York, as an example of how immunotherapy can be used to successfully treat some cancers. The team is now conducting a Phase 3 trial for advanced nose cancer, the first to be undertaken in the world, and will recruit more than 300 patients from various countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and the US.

This year, our first publicly-funded, made-in-Singapore cancer drug candidate (ETC-159) advanced into clinical trials. ETC-159 targets a number of cancers including colorectal, ovarian and pancreatic cancers, which are among the top 10 causes of cancer deaths in Singapore.  It can minimise the side effects experienced by cancer patients using conventional therapeutics.

Even as we make progress in the development of therapies that treat cancer more effectively, there remains much more to be done, particularly in the development of a holistic approach to cancer management ranging from cancer prevention, early detection, treatment and follow-up, and palliation. This is especially the case in Asia, where there is a wide variability in sociocultural practices, economic development, ethnicity, diet, and lifestyle patterns. 

Prevention offers the most cost-effective long-term strategy for the control of cancer.  Through prevention, limited resources can be optimised for quality healthcare. At least one-third of all cancer cases are preventable.  We can effectively prevent cancers related to tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, and obesity, through a combination of public education and health promotion programmes that encourage healthy behaviours and discourage unhealthy habits. We can also prevent certain cancers that have infectious causes through the use of vaccines, antiviral therapy, and education.

We need effective healthcare policies in this regard. For example, to improve detection at earlier stages of cancer, the Health Promotion Board, a statutory board under the Ministry of Health, has introduced national screening programmes under ‘Screen for Life’ to screen for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer.  These screening programmes are made accessible and are provided either free of charge or heavily subsidised especially for lower- to middle-income households, so as to encourage people to go for early cancer screening.

Policies also play a vital role in tackling the development of new health threats. For example, the ban on electronic cigarettes and other emerging tobacco products effected just this week by the Ministry of Health, is a pre-emptive measure to protect public health against the known and potential harms of such products. 

Ladies and gentlemen

By building capabilities and strengthening our partnerships, we can develop new cancer treatments that benefit the world. This congress is an excellent platform for exchanging ideas and learning about innovative and emerging therapies in the treatment and management of cancers.  

I wish you a fruitful and productive time of networking and learning from one another, and hope you will continue to maintain the friendship and network forged here and continue the meaningful dialogue beyond this congress.

Thank you.