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From high school MVP to PhD: Meet the Ucluelet Secondary grad making strides in curing cancer

Dr. Eric Tran is part of a scientific research team pioneering breakthroughs in eradicating cancer
Dr. Eric Tran is an associate member at the Providence Cancer Institute in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Ucluelet Secondary in 2000. (Submitted photo)

In the forest green covered Ucluelet Secondary School Class of 2000 Yearbook, a then Grade 12 student Eric Tran was voted by his peers as the ‘Most likely to become rich’, ‘Most Athletic’, and ‘Most Academic’.

So it won’t come as a surprise to those that remember Tran from his Warrior basketball days that he is now part of a scientific research team pioneering breakthroughs in eradicating cancer.

Over the phone from the Providence Cancer Institute in Portland, Oregon, Tran (or Dr. Tran these days) tells the Westerly about his journey from being crowned the 2000 Islands MVP to an internationally renowned cancer immunotherapy researcher. Straight off the bat, he recalls all his wonderful teachers at USS, especially the departed biology teacher Mr. Alton Crane.

“Mr. Crane was able to make things understandable. He was probably my first major scientific influence and probably stirred me into biology. I wish I could go back and thank him for what he has done for me,” said Tran, who was born in the Tofino General Hospital in 1982.

“All along my goal has been to help people with science and I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do that,” he said.

Tran and his research team made headlines last year after a relatively new type of cancer treatment involving genetically modifying the T cells of a pancreatic cancer patient to target and kill cancer cells helped drastically reduce the patient’s tumour.

“Instead of using these toxic drugs, we are actually using your immune system; a certain type of white blood cell in your body called the T cell. We know that the right T cell with the right receptor can actually engage with a cancer cell and actually kill it. We know that for a fact,” he explained, noting that their approach involves inserting a modified gene into the T cells that then redirect them to target the cancer cells.

“It’s a very complex process where we have to take cells from a patient. We have to take it to specialized facility to modify it, to grow them up, and then we have to give them back to the patient. That’s actually a very lengthy and costly process,” he said.

“The other major thing is this patient with pancreatic cancer. This is a very deadly cancer. The fact that we can use this new treatment and show that it can shrink these aggressive cancer, I think that’s why [the research] made national news.”

Tran’s relatively new immunotherapy treatment is still at the clinical trial phase and not Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved, which is why he emphasizes that his approach to the findings garnered from his first patient is one of “cautious optimism.”

A report published in the June 2022 New England Journal of Medicine notes the T cell transfer therapy administered by Tran and his team rapidly regressed the patients’ tumour by 62 per cent within the first month of treatment.

“We need to first demonstrate that it works and in order to demonstrate that it works we need to treat larger number of patients. A one-off patient is encouraging, but what if the next 20 patients are failures? That means the drug is not effective,” he said.

Tran pauses for a sip of water before answering the big question: Is this new treatment transferable to other types of cancer?

“With our approach, we are targeting unique mutations expressed by the cancer cell. And so as long as that mutation is expressed by a given cancer then we could theoretically target (the cancer),” said Tran.

He went on to stress that this treatment is still in the early stage of clinical trial.

“These are the medicines of tomorrow. They are things that we are testing. We hope that we see more and more patients responds so that one day it can be an approved drug.”

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