HK Doctor Uses Liquid Biopsy For Early Cancer Detection

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Geann Pineda


Medical experts from around the world race to find the best cure for cancer.  Aside from the traditional chemotherapy and radiation, there are now so-called miracle drugs available for targeted cancer therapy.  Despite the latest technologies and research, cancer remains to be the leading cause of death worldwide.

Dennis Lo, a doctor from Hong Kong, has developed a new method called liquid biopsy, which he claims can detect many kinds of cancer at a very early stage.  Lo worked on the technique for 20 years, which can spot cancer with a few drops of a person’s blood, even before symptoms arise.

Lo’s method decodes millions of DNA fragments in a human’s blood with the use of a DNA-sequencing machine.  The results will then be compared to that of a normal human genome or a complete set of human DNA.  Researchers can now spot rearranged DNA patterns – a significant sign of a tumor.

Lo’s laboratory is located at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where all his DNA sequencing machines are housed.  With the procedure still new, cancer screening using DNA sequencing comes with a high price tag, which only a few rich people can afford. But Lo says next generation DNA sequencers will come no larger than a cell phone and a lot cheaper.  This can make annual liquid biopsies affordable for an average Chinese individual.

Cancer is believed to be the top killer in Beijing. Death rate across the country is steadily increasing with air pollution, smoking and industrial pollution affecting much of China.

Liver cancer is the most common type of cancer in China.  One in every 14 people in China are infected with hepatitis B, which puts them at higher risk of developing cancer. Twenty seven percent of worldwide cancer deaths are from China.

Aside from early detection, Lo said liquid biopsies could help in the actual treatment of cancers. Through blood tests, doctors will be able to detect the specific DNA mutation that’s causing the cancer. With that, the doctors may now choose a drug that will target that particular DNA fragment.

Cancers detected at a very early stage are usually curable, while those discovered at a later stage – when they are spreading – remain generally untreatable.  Data from the United States show most cases of successful cancer treatments are attributed to early detection.

Lo is also responsible for detecting the presence of fetal DNA in a mother’s blood.  This paved the way for the diagnosis of abnormalities during fetal development such as down syndrome.   He was also responsible for developing DNA sequencing that will determine the gender of a fetus earlier than an ultrasound.