Pan Jia Wern Is Harnessing Big Data To Combat Cancer In Asian Patients

By Chong Jinn Xiung

While breast cancer impacts people across the globe, there is still a lack of data for patients in Asia. Cancer Research Malaysia's Pan Jia Wern is working to change that through his research

Tatler Asia
Photo: Khairul Imran
Cover  Photo: Khairul Imran

In the What Matters To Me series, a Generation T honouree describes what they do, why they do it, and why it matters.

There is evidence, through numerous cancer studies, that ethnicity and genetics can help doctors predict how diseases progress, and often can also affect how patients respond to specific medicines.

For Pan Jia Wern, a postdoctoral scientist with Cancer Research Malaysia, learning these nuances helped him realise that cancer is a far more complex disease than some realise. The non-profit research institute focuses on cancers that are prevalent in Asia and works to translate the latest research findings into the local context, with the objective of reversing the negative impact cancer has on society.

Here, Pan discusses his work with Cancer Research Malaysia and his vision for cancer treatment in the future.

See also: 13 Experts Weigh In On The Future Of Arts And Culture After The Pandemic

Tatler Asia
Photos: Pexels
Above  Photos: Pexels

I am pleased to be part of a team that found that breast cancers in Asian women appear to stimulate a stronger immune response compared to Caucasian women. Naturally, this finding builds upon other studies by other research groups that previously hinted to that fact, but given the growing importance of immunotherapy in cancer treatment, we think it is an important find that may become clinically relevant in the future.

I think there is an over-emphasis on productivity in most Asian cultures, including ours, and trying to maximise productivity comes with significant tradeoffs in health and well-being that we as a society should continue to re-evaluate over time. I doubt that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, but for me, what [keeps me productive] is to set realistic goals and to find meaning in what you do. I find that when I understand how a specific task is meaningful, and when I know what I am working towards, then productivity follows quite naturally.

I did not study cancer while I was abroad; I only started researching the disease when I joined Cancer Research Malaysia. I think one common misconception among scientists abroad is that they assume that people elsewhere, in different circumstances, think about things the same way that we do. But cultural differences are real and do have a significant impact on how cancer unfolds in people's lives. Another common misconception is that cancer is a "first-world disease", but actually, the majority of cases and deaths from cancer occur in developing countries.

See also: Iru Wang, Co-Founder Of MoBagel, On Democratising Access To AI

A common misconception among scientists abroad is they assume people elsewhere have the same manner of thinking as them. But cultural differences do have a significant impact on how cancer unfolds in people's lives
Pan Jia Wern
Tatler Asia
Photo: Khairul Imran
Above  Photo: Khairul Imran

It is rewarding to know that our work has already led to the initiation of a number of new clinical trials for Malaysian breast cancer patients, helping them get access to therapies that would otherwise be unaffordable to them. Adding to that, there is evidence that ethnicity and genetics can sometimes help doctors predict how a specific disease will progress. This would allow doctors to be more efficient and impactful in the tests and treatments that they prescribe.

Our goal is to complete the genetic database that we have built, publish it and make it available to other researchers. We are building collaborations with other researchers in order to analyse the unique features of breast cancer among Asians.

One key lesson I learnt is the importance of inclusivity and diversity in science, especially for research in the field of health and biological sciences. It is too easy to generalise research findings conducted on one population. But scientists are becoming more aware that it is not the case, and it leads to bad outcomes. To avoid biases and reduce disparities in health outcomes, it is critical that we try to include as many types of people in our research process [as possible].

See more Gen.T honourees from the Healthcare & Sciences category of the Gen.T List 2020

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.