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Canada 150: Dr. Victor Ling Made a Huge Breakthrough in Fighting Drug-Resistant Cancers

By June 5, 2017No Comments

To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.

In 1971, Dr. Victor Ling was frustrated and full of doubt. It was an unusual period for Ling, who is known for his optimism about finding a cure for cancer.

After getting his doctorate at the University of B.C., Ling was at Cambridge University with Fred Sanger, the legendary British biochemist who had already been awarded one Nobel Prize and would later receive a second, both in chemistry.

Sanger and Ling were the only people in the world doing something called sequencing DNA. At their lab, they were both the butt of jokes for their esoteric research.

“One morning, I was so frustrated,” he told Daphne Bramham of The Vancouver Sun in 2001. “I was losing my confidence because I wasn’t getting anywhere, and this was earth-shattering to me because I had always excelled. I went to (Sanger) and said it will take at least 50 years to sequence, and he said, ‘Well, somebody has to start.’ And with that encouragement, I went back to the lab.”

He returned to Toronto, where he had gone to high school and university after immigrating with his family from China as a child.

It was at his own lab at the Ontario Cancer Institute where Ling and colleagues made a discovery that has had a huge impact in fighting cancer around the world.

He was part of a group that was using genetics to figure out how complex biological phenomena worked.

“It was team science at its best,” Ling said in a paper recalling his groundbreaking research.

What Ling discovered was P-glycoprotein which pumps substances identified as foreign out of a cell. It was the first example of a multi-drug-resistant protein. This was significant in the fight against cancer, for example, because cancers can develop resistance to anti-cancer drugs during chemotherapy.

“This is a story of how science progresses, by collaboration of creative individuals and by adoption of new technologies as they emerge to answer questions of immediate interest and importance,” said the 2005 paper by Ling and Michael Gottesman.

By 1995, Ling was considered one of the world’s top cancer researchers. When he was lured out west, his titles included director of cancer research at Vancouver Hospital and vice-president of research at the B.C. Cancer Agency. He is the now president and scientific director of the Terry Fox Research Institute.

His ongoing research continues to look at resistance to anti-cancer drugs. Can P-glycoprotein, for example, be manipulated to improve efficiency?

“Cancer is a huge problem,” he told The Vancouver Sun in 2006. “We can bury our heads in the sand and say it is too complicated, but I think any problem that seems to be non-solvable tests a society. And I think if we can be logical and passionate about it, we can go much further here than anybody thinks.”