Detecting malignant cancer cells in very early stages in order to provide treatment long before tumours spread across the body is something patients, doctors, and public health officials have been looking forward to for a long time. A novel diagnostics technique might make this dream come true and save millions of people from one of the deadliest diseases known to humanity. In the late 1990s Dennis Lo, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, discovered traces of a foetus’s DNA in the mother’s blood, an unexpected and groundbreaking discovery. The potential of this finding did not elude him and he worked tirelessly for one-and-a-half decades to prove his theory, ultimately leading him to a new kind of non-invasive prenatal diagnostics that has immensely reduced risks for both mothers and their unborn children. It turned out that the same technology holds even greater potential, since the so-called “liquid biopsy” has capabilities far beyond prenatal diagnostics. Today, Dennis and his team use it to successfully screen patients for nascent-stage cancer, identifying the disease before it starts to do harm. At Falling Walls, Dennis explains how liquid biopsies have the enormous potential to reduce costs for health systems and ultimately to save lives on a massive scale.
BREAKING THE WALL TO EARLY DISEASE DETECTION
How liquid biopsy can revolutionize medical diagnostics
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Dennis Lo, director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences and Professor of Chemical Pathology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and member of the Croucher Foundation, discovered in the mid-1990s that a baby’s DNA can be found in the mother’s blood. He then spent the next decade-and-a-half trying to translate his findings into clinical use, a time during which he developed a ground-breaking new method of non-invasive prenatal diagnostics that revolutionised screening tests for Down syndrome and other genetic conditions, affecting millions of pregnant women. Dennis’s current work focuses on a technique called “liquid biopsy” which helps in detecting head and neck cancer, and other cancers from a drop of blood – even before symptoms arise. His ultimate goal is to create a blood test that finds multiple types of cancer while the disease is still curable.