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Meet Dr. Tsze Tsang, co-inventor of two targeted molecular therapy patents

Many of you know Tsze “Zee” Tsang, Ph.D. as Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chair of Math and Science at HNU. But did you know that he is also an experienced cancer researcher? The most recent of his many contributions are two patent applications published this past year for which he was co-inventor. They are for new molecules for treating cancer and are the results of his collaboration with a research team at UCSF led by cancer specialist Dr. Csaba Peto. Dr. Tsang was the only non-UCSF scientist on the team and was invited to collaborate because of his expertise in medicinal chemistry.

Dr. Tsang is the co-inventor of nearly 20 patents, over half of which support cancer research. Prior to joining the faculty at HNU, he was a senior scientist at a biotech company for ten years. Now that he is teaching, he works on research projects that he is passionate about during the summer months. I sat down with Dr. Tsang to learn more about these projects and how they influence his work as a professor at Holy Names.

What drew you to cancer research?

I picked cancer research because it is such a devastating disease. As a scientist, I hope to help make small, incremental improvements toward a cure and to discover new ways to control the disease in the meantime.

How does a molecule treat cancer?

A molecule may alter an undesirable chemical pathway that will lead to carcinogenesis (the initiation of cancer formation) while imparting minimal side effects.

How does this treatment compare to chemotherapy and radiation?

Chemotherapy and radiation are very toxic agents that kill all cells in the body: both cancer cells and healthy cells. Targeted molecular therapy is part of a new generation of cancer drugs that aim at biochemical pathways that may inhibit cancer growth. This newer approach is like choosing a chisel instead of a sledgehammer to treat the disease. If the cancer is detected early, a targeted approach can be more effective. That said, if the cancer is very aggressive, chemo or radiation may be used first to slow the initial growth. An analogy would be fighting a raging forest fire. Often, firefighters spray fire retardants over the entire inferno to stop it from spreading, then eventually put it out using more targeted methods.

What needs to happen before any patented molecules become drugs?

First, the molecules need to demonstrate that they inhibit the growth of cancer cells in the laboratory, then in animal models. If they succeed, they go through a three-phase clinical trial process with cancer patients that could last 10-12 more years. My job is done at this point (after a molecule enters the clinic) because the rest of the process requires different expertise.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have the honor of having developed a drug that is saving people’s lives and easing their pain. However, teaching offers a different kind of personal reward. As we teach science awareness and applications, we are shaping young people’s lives and inspiring them to become doctors, nurses, and scientists. I may not be the one who discovers the next cancer treatment or the cure to Alzheimer’s disease, but one of my students may be.

How does your research work shape your approach in your teaching?

Drug discovery is a team effort, and this is what we teach at HNU. Here, we emphasize the importance of cooperation and the ability to work with experts in other fields. Also, I like for my students to know that they aren’t just learning about science, they will be able to use science to help others by improving their quality of life.

Patent abstracts:

1. WO-2018005678-A1: Compounds And Compositions For The Treatment Of Cancer Abstract: The present disclosure provides compounds, pharmaceutical compositions, and methods for the treatment of cancer and fibrosis. The disclosed pharmaceutical compositions may include one or more pyrazolyl-containing compounds, or a derivative thereof. https://patents.google.com/patent/WO2018005678A1/en

2. WO2017223516A1: Phthalazine Derivatives As Inhibitors Of Parp1, Parp2 And/Or Tubulin Useful For The Treatment Of Cancer Abstract: The application relates to phthalazine derivatives of formula (I) which are inhibitors of PARP1, PARP2, and/or tubulin and thus useful for the treatment of cancer. Also disclosed are pharmaceutical formulations containing such compounds, as well as combinations of these compounds with at least one additional therapeutic agent. https://patents.google.com/patent/WO2017223516A1/en