Making his mark: Professor Swee Tan
Professor Swee Tan is a plastic surgeon whose research into the origin of strawberry birthmarks and their treatment, has some exciting implications for the treatment of cancer and regenerative medicine.
Profession Tan, is based at Hutt Valley District Health Board and his research team have discovered the origin of strawberry birthmarks in embryonic stem cells. They also discovered these primitive cells are controlled by the renin-angiotensin system, which was previously only known to regulate blood pressure.
"We can now treat strawberry birthmarks (a vascular tumour) with propranolol, an anti-hypertensive drug. This represents a paradigm shift in the treatment of the condition. The application of the concept of using a modulator of the renin-angiotensin system to treat tumours and its potential application to cancer is exciting."
Their research also shows the link between the renin-angiotensin system and cancer. Earlier in 2010 their four-strong research team won a major international science prize for this breakthrough research.
"If we can better understand the nature and cause of birthmarks, we're one step closer to the cure for cancer.
Professor Tan's clinical leadership has been instrumental in the establishment of the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute for Reconstructive Plastic Surgery, dedicated to researching the cause of diseases such as birthmarks and cancer, and tissue engineering.
"The future is the understanding of the cellular and molecular basis of diseases, such as birthmarks and cancer, and wound repair and tissue regeneration. And the future relies on research."
Professor Tan is internationally recognised for clinical excellence and research in plastic surgery especially birthmarks. During his tenure as the Director of the Wellington Regional Plastic, Maxillofacial and Burns Unit at Hutt Hospital 2000-2006, the Unit has expanded to increase access to quality plastic surgery services to the Central Region. The Unit provides supra-regional craniofacial surgery and laser services to two thirds of the country's population.
It also receives referrals for vascular birthmarks from throughout the New Zealand. The Unit attracts high caliber surgeons, trainees, and fellows from throughout the world. Tan relinquished the Directorship of the Unit to assume the position of Director of Surgery at Hutt Valley DHB in 2007. The University of Otago established a professorial chair in plastic surgery in 2008 and appointed Tan to that position.