The molecular biologist who pioneered non-invasive prenatal testing will launch a blood test kit with Hong Kong's Prenetics Group to screen for cancer cells, a game-changing approach to detect one of humankind's biggest killer diseases and propel the city's role as a research and development hub for life sciences.
Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Prenetics will establish a US$200 million venture called Insighta to provide clinically administered blood tests for early-stage cancer cells in the liver, lungs, and other organs.
Lo, the director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences and the chairman of the Department of Chemical Pathology at the CUHK's Faculty of Medicine, will own half of the venture. The other half will be owned by Nasdaq-listed Prenetics, which will invest US$80 million in cash, and US$20 million in stock.
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Insighta's "technological framework" is based on the "particular insight that ..... cancer cells release DNA into an individual's bloodstream, so by taking a blood sample, we can test for those [cancerous] DNA," Lo said in an interview with South China Morning Post last week. "How accurate the test is. is a matter of the execution power. So, the combination of our technological framework with Prenetics' tests [makes a] very strong" venture, he said.
Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming (right) of the CUHK, and Professor Allen Chan Kwan-chee (left), during the announcement of a breakthrough technique using a blood test to detect Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection, a leading cause of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, on 10 August 2017. Photo: Dickson Lee alt=Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming (right) of the CUHK, and Professor Allen Chan Kwan-chee (left), during the announcement of a breakthrough technique using a blood test to detect Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection, a leading cause of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, on 10 August 2017. Photo: Dickson Lee>
Insighta, located in Hong Kong, will begin a multi-country clinical trial of 5,000 patients in early 2024, and the initial Presight tests will be focused on liver and lung cancer, the 1st and 2nd most deadliest cancers in Mainland China. The company plans to make it commercially available first on the mainland and Hong Kong in 2025, said Lo, the venture's chairman.
Lung and liver cancers were the two most common cancers in China last year, estimated to cost the nation US$25 billion and US$11 billion respectively in economic costs, according to the US National Library of Medicine.
The initial test could be particularly significant for mainland China, where 90 million people are estimated to be carriers of the hepatitis B virus, the leading cause of liver cancer. China makes up 25 per cent of the world's chronic hepatitis B infections, while Liver cancer is China's fifth-most common type of cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
Because the underlying technology can be "generalised into multi-cancer tests," Insighta can gradually expand into detecting more than 10 types of cancerous cells with its Presight One test kits in 2027, he said.
"Insighta can detect early-stage liver cancer with a sensitivity of 85 per cent and a specificity of 98 per cent," said Lo, whose pioneering work in non-invasive prenatal detection of Down syndrome is being used by millions of pregnant women in dozens of countries. "This means that out of 100 cases of early-stage liver cancer, Insighta can detect 85, and out of 100 individuals without cancer, it can detect 98 of them."
The venture -the largest life sciences transaction in Asia this year - would also spearhead the development of a life science ecosystem in Hong Kong, and help the city's position as a biotech hub.
Prenetics Group's CEO Danny Yeung Sheng-wu at his office in Quarry Bay on 16 September 2021. Photo: K.Y. Cheng alt=Prenetics Group's CEO Danny Yeung Sheng-wu at his office in Quarry Bay on 16 September 2021. Photo: K.Y. Cheng>
"We are presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to influence "the health of 1 billion individuals in Asia," said Danny Yeung Sheng-wu, the chief executive of Prenetics and the new venture. "We intend to forge alliances with healthcare institutions and forward-thinking governments that align with our vision - a commitment to save lives through the power of early cancer detection."
This is not Lo's first attempt at commercialising his technology. The Oxford -educated researcher co-founded Cirina, which also worked on early cancer detection. It was sold in 2017 to the US healthcare company Grail for US$300 million. Grail was taken over in 2021 by Illumina, the world's leading genome sequencing company, for US$7.1 billion.
Instead of selling his intellectual property to Silicon Valley or Wall Street firms this time, Lo said he chose to establish a venture in Hong Kong instead to contribute to the development of the city's life science ecosystem.
"Hong Kong has two [globally ranked] medical schools, a very good database and a number of very exciting new initiatives like the Hong Kong Genome Project [that] sequences 50,000 Hong Kong citizens," Lo said.
Prenetics was listed on the Nasdaq in 2021 through merging with Artisan Acquisition, a so-called blank cheque company backed by New World Development's Chief Executive Adrian Cheng Chi-kong. It produced rapid antigen test (RAT) kits to detect Covid-19 coronavirus during the recent pandemic.
Insighta will use its capital for trials and the commercialisation of its technology. By teaming up with Prenetics, Insighta can provide its test kits for as low as US$200 each, a significant saving that puts annual assessments within the realm of many individuals through corporate check-ups.
"Cost is a vital determinant in the viability of any breakthrough science," Lo said. "Our objective is to transform early cancer detection from a luxury to a universally accessible necessity."