14 December 2010

The New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) today awarded Professor Swee Tan the Chair’s Award – the NZMA’s highest standing award – for his world class research into strawberry birthmarks, which has the potential to advance the treatment of cancer.

The NZMA Chair’s Award goes to an individual or organisation that has made a substantial contribution to the health of New Zealanders, either throughout the current year or over a given period of time.

Professor Swee Tan is a plastic surgeon and the director of surgery at the Hutt Valley DHB. His research into the origin of strawberry birthmarks has led to better treatment of strawberry birthmarks, but also has exciting implications for the treatment of cancer, says NZMA Chair Dr Peter Foley.

Professor Tan’s research was recognized earlier this year when his four-member research team won a major international science prize – the John Mulliken Prize for the best science paper at the conference of the International Society for their study of vascular anomalies.

The most significant finding of the research is that the origin of birthmarks – stem cells – are the same stem cells that cause cancer. Learning about birthmark stem cells could not only help in the fight against cancer but many other diseases and afflictions.

Dr Foley says: “Professor Tan is a brilliant surgeon who has positively transformed the lives of many children born with strawberry birthmarks. He has also proven to be an exceptional researcher who is dedicated, driven and devoted to the practice of medicine to advance the health of patients. His research has the potential to advance health on a global scale.”

“He could easily command a job and salary anywhere in the world but he remains committed to New Zealand and undertaking his world class research here.”
Professor Tan has also demonstrated strong leadership in establishing a research institute – the Gillies McIndoe Institute for Reconstructive Plastic Surgery – formally launched in 2009, says Dr Foley. The Institute now holds the patents for the research undertaken by Professor Tan’s team.

“Professor Tan had ideas on how to explore better treatment for children with strawberry birthmarks from early on in his career and ideas about how these birthmarks could provide clues to treat other tumours such as cancer. He has invested much time over the years in research to advance understanding of these issues, often under challenging circumstances, such as limited funding. He has also worked hard to raise funds to ensure this exciting research continues.”

Dr Foley said the award was an opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge what can be achieved in medicine through innovation and determination.

Professor Swee Tan will be presented with the Chair’s Award at the NZMA’s annual awards evening in Wellington this evening.