June 6, 2011

NEW ZEALAND: He saves patients from disfiguring birthmarks, scars, injuries. Hopes to cure cancer one day

WELLINGTON, New Zealand / The Dominion Post / National / June 6, 2011

Birthmark research opens field of cancer work

By Paul Easton

He saves patients from disfiguring birthmarks, scars and injuries, and hopes to cure cancer one day.

Internationally renowned plastic surgeon Swee Tan is made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday Honours. He is the director of the Gillies McIndoe Institute, based at Hutt Hospital, which is dedicated to researching birth defects, cancer and tissue engineering.

Professor Tan, 51, was swift to deflect the credit on to the team he works with. "I was surprised, because I don't expect recognition, it is just something I have always wanted to do. It should go to all the team really, because it is a team effort."

The Malaysian-born surgeon with a love of skiing is at the forefront of research into strawberry birthmarks.

TEAM LEADER: Swee Tan's leads a team in world-class research into strawberry birthmarks.

Otherwise known as infantile haemangioma, strawberry birthmarks are benign tumours, caused by the abnormal growth of blood vessels.

Strawberry birthmarks usually disappear by the time a child is five years old, but in some cases they can threaten to block an airway or cause ulceration, heart failure or blindness. (Photo: findmeacure.com)

Prof Tan and his team have devised a way to treat strawberry birthmarks with oral medication. Propranalol, normally used for treating high blood pressure, can stop cells within a strawberry birthmark dividing.

"The cells commit suicide, and the birthmark reduces in size very rapidly." The research could have serious implications for the treatment of cancer, Prof Tan said.

"We believe the same can also apply to a number of cancer tumour systems. We need to test the hypothesis on other cancers. We are very hopeful that the research will allow us to make the leap. We are very excited about it."

Prof Tan was in the news in February, when he was part of a team that saved Jamie Howell's damaged fingers in a 13-hour operation. The Nelson man was making a letterbox when he caught his digits on a saw. One was chopped off, and two were left hanging by a thread.

Many other people have had burns soothed, digits reattached and scars removed by the team.

Prof Tan and his wife, Sanchia, have three children, Cherise, Elysia and Michael.

He is no stranger to recognition. This year he was bestowed an award from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons for excellence in surgical research.

Last year he received the Medical Association's highest award, for his world-class research into strawberry birthmarks.

And he was humbled at news of today's award.

"We are not supposed to say anything, but I told my wife."

- The Dominion Post

© 2011 Fairfax New Zealand Limited