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Monday, December 16, 2019, 12:49
Science award winner targets early cancer detection
By Zhou Wenting
Monday, December 16, 2019, 12:49 By Zhou Wenting

Chemical pathologist Lo Yuk-ming (second from left) receives the Fudan-Zhongzhi Science Award in Shanghai on Dec 15, 2019, from Nobel laureate physicist Samuel Chao Chung Ting (second from right), who is also chairman of the award committee. (GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY)

Hong Kong chemical pathologist Lo Yuk-ming, best known for his contributions to noninvasive prenatal testing, which benefits millions of mothers and newborns worldwide each year, plans to expand the technique to early cancer detection to improve patients' survival rates.

His team is preparing multi-center clinical trials on early screening of pre-symptomatic patients suffering from nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a head and neck cancer, in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, a part of China with a higher incidence of the disease, Lo said in Shanghai on Sunday after receiving the Fudan-Zhongzhi Science Award.

His technology works by detecting tumor DNA circulating in a patient's blood.

We're working with institutions, including the State Key Laboratory of Oncology in South China affiliated with Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, to push forward the clinical trial 

Lo Yuk-ming, professor of chemical pathology at Chinese University of Hong Kong

"We're working with institutions, including the State Key Laboratory of Oncology in South China affiliated with Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, to push forward the clinical trial," said Lo, professor of chemical pathology at Chinese University of Hong Kong and a founding member of the Hong Kong Academy of Sciences.

Lo said his team published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2017 after four years of research that showed 70 percent of nasopharyngeal carcinoma patients screened by their technology were at Phase I or II of the disease, while traditionally 76 percent of patients were in Phase III or IV when the disease was discovered.

"Such a difference led to reducing the mortality rate to one-tenth among patients after three years," he said.

According to the latest official data, the national incidence of the cancer is roughly 1.2 out of 100,000, but in Guangdong province it is more than five times the national figure. Doctors said genetics, certain viral infections and eating habits were the main reasons for the higher prevalence.

The technology has the potential to be applicable in early screening of 10 other types of cancers, including liver, lung and colorectal, Lo said.

He got the inspiration for screening for cancer by detecting circulating DNA released by a tumor from his breakthrough discovery in 1997 of circulating DNA released by a fetus that was present in maternal blood, which laid the foundation for noninvasive prenatal testing.

Five million pregnant women in China have such prenatal testing each year to detect genetic diseases of the fetus, Lo said.

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"Doctors take the testing as a routine screening for 70 percent of the pregnant women in Hong Kong, where around 50,000 babies are born each year," he said.

Lo said he is also working with KingMed Diagnostics, a Guangzhou-based medical diagnostic testing company, to introduce the latest high-quality noninvasive prenatal testing technologies to the Chinese mainland.

"The novel technologies include screening for Down syndrome by the length of certain fetal chromosomes and determining the maturity of the baby from the mother's blood sample and forecasting a possible premature birth," he said.

The annual science award was jointly founded by Fudan University and Zhongzhi Enterprise Group, an asset-management company headquartered in Beijing.

This year marks the award's fourth year. The winners each year share a prize of 3 million yuan (US$426,000).

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James Allison of the United States and Japan's Tasuku Honjo, who won the award in 2016 for their contributions to immunotherapy, received last year's Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology. US scientists Rainer Weiss, Kip Stephen Thorne, and Barry Clark Barish, who received the Fudan-Zhongzhi award in 2017 for their contributions to the observation and research of gravitational waves, won that year's Nobel Prize for physics.

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