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Hong Kong startup CEO says liquid biopsy to fast-track cancer diagnosis in Asia

? Liquid biopsies are blood-based and non-invasive while tissue biopsies require surgical procedures and are time consuming.

? The technology will help patients and doctors avoid wasting money on drugs that may not work.

? Sanomics plans to use Hong Kong as a testing hub for the new technology.

Hong Kong-based startup Sanomics, which was co-founded by a number of professors working in various hospitals in the city, seeks to use new DNA technology to help doctors customize treatments for cancer patients. In 2016, the company partnered with California-based Guardant Health Inc. to develop blood-based DNA tests to diagnose genetic mutations in cancer patients through a technique called liquid biopsy. At the Asia Lung Cancer Summit held at the Hong Kong Science Park in July, CEO Tony Yung spoke to S&P Global Market Intelligence about his company's plans to make Hong Kong a genomics testing hub for cancer treatment in the region. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Tony Yung, CEO of Sanomics

Source: Sanomics

S&P Global Market Intelligence: What is your technology?

Tony Yung: We use liquid biopsy to detect DNA fragments in the blood samples of cancer patients. Everyone has DNA molecules floating in their bloodstream. When somebody has cancer, the tumors release DNA into the blood. When we take the DNA from blood samples of cancer patients, we detect both normal DNA and tumor DNA. We need to accurately analyze the tumor DNA to help doctors match the treatment that would be most effective for the patient. This type of technology is available in Europe and the U.S., but it doesn't address the population differences in Asia. For example in lung cancer, the prevalence of some mutations is higher in Asia. Also, we have seen that a number of Southeast Asian cities don't have a good genetic database for reference. So, we are building the database to further develop the technology to serve the Asian population better.

How do you detect the tumor DNA?

In many cases, the tumor DNA level is quite low. As an analogy, it's like going into a busy airport and you are looking for two terrorists out of 10,000 people. How do you do it? We need a method with a high throughput, effective, and accurate to pick out those terrorists in a relatively short period of time. For example, if you want to look for one terrorist, screening people one by one will take months. We need a method that can screen 10,000 people simultaneously. We call it digital PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, assays. This is the technology we are using.

Is the technology expensive?

DNA mutation analysis is done to help doctors pick the best drug for the patient, so cost of the test is relative to the treatment cost. In Hong Kong, the typical monthly cost of targeted therapy with a new drug for treating cancer is around HK$40,000 to HK$60,000. Our aim is to make the test cost less than 15% of the treatment cost in the first one to two months. In that sense, it is not expensive. If we do it well, it will help patients and doctors avoid wasting money on drugs that would not work. It is actually a cost-saving method.

What are the advantages of liquid biopsies?

Liquid biopsies are non-invasive whereas traditional tissue biopsies require surgical procedures and are time consuming. After the tissue is extracted, you may need to wait weeks for analysis. For the work that we do, we try to limit the whole process to three days — one day for taking the blood, and two days for analysis.

What is your vision?

We plan to use Hong Kong as a hub to test the latest technology. Hong Kong is a small market but it's perfect as a testing ground for new technologies. We can launch the tests here and then move the technology and business to other countries in Asia, including Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Are you seeing cancer research investment in Asia catch up with the West?

I think we are still at the infancy stage in Asia, but we are catching up fast. There are some niche areas we could focus more on. For example, a large number of non-smoking women suffering from lung cancer in Asia have the epidermal growth factor receptor mutation. There is an opportunity here — there are some things that we might do better than the Europeans or Americans for this population. Investment is coming in, particularly from China. A lot of Chinese capital is coming into Hong Kong, something I didn't imagine five or ten years ago.

How do you plan to raise capital?

Having good technology doesn't mean you have a good business. I always say I am not selling a technology, but selling something that can be incorporated into the value chain. For example, when you treat a cancer patient, you will have doctors, nurses, surgeons, radiologists, drug companies, and pharmacists. To integrate all this is critical. It's not just about having a technology business, but also having a network that can pull everything together. We are trying to prove that we are a technology provider as well as a connector. Once we prove that, we will be able to get more capital for further development through fund raisings.

Do you partner with drug companies?

Yes. For both research and commercialization, we are working more and more with drug companies.