Rossa Chiu on trail of blood test to spot cancer early

Rossa Chiu hopes that her work on DNA will lead to a simple blood diagnosis that can detect different tumours at the same time

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2012, 3:28am

A distinguished medical researcher is hoping to change cancer treatment with a diagnosis technique that will catch the disease at an early stage through a simple blood test.

If the past is any indication, Professor Rossa Chiu Wai-kwun, 38, a specialist in chemical pathology at Chinese University, may just succeed.

Chiu, the winner of many prizes for research, picked up the Chinese Young Women in Science Fellowship award in Beijing yesterday for her work in developing a non-invasive test for Down's syndrome and other conditions before a baby's birth.

"After developing the Down's syndrome test, we wanted to further challenge ourselves," Chiu said in a recent interview.

"We had the wild thought of creating an ideal cancer test, one that could detect different cancers at the same time, safely, and can be performed regularly without causing undesirable side effects."

Chiu and her team took a big step towards that dream by analysing DNA in the blood of cancer patients, which showed marked differences before and after cancerous tumours were removed.

Their work on fetal testing was based on the knowledge that fetal DNA can be found in a mother's blood.

Similarly, Chiu says, cancer cell DNA is found in a patient's blood, though it is very fragmented and makes up only 2 per cent of all blood DNA.

"The theory is simple, but application is very difficult," Chiu said. "It's like putting together a very complicated jigsaw puzzle."

That puzzle forced the researchers to develop a new way to analyse complicated data, enabling the analysis of 400 million DNA fragments in each sample. The fetal Down's syndrome test, for comparison, involved analysing 10 million DNA fragments in a sample.

Chiu's team analysed the DNA of five cancer patients, including one who had both breast and ovarian cancer.

The locations of the cancerous tumours could be identified from the DNA pattern, which meant the blood test functioned like a body scan.

The study was published in an international journal in October. "I hope one day we will have a screening test for the general public that can identify cancer at an early stage," Chiu said.

"Multiple-cancer diagnosis by a single blood test may be possible."

The Down's syndrome test developed by Chiu and her team is now routinely used around the world. It eliminates the risk of miscarriage associated with the invasive procedures of conventional tests.

Chiu's many prizes include winning an Outstanding Young Person award last year.

She is the second Hong Kong recipient of the Chinese Young Women in Science Fellowship award since it started accepting nominations from Hong Kong two years ago. Ten winners were selected from 188 candidates this year.

Though she is recognised as an outstanding scientist, Chiu sees herself as a dedicated mother, too.

"Once I get off work, I only play the mum role, I won't worry about work". For her seven-year-old twin girls: "I'm just a normal mum in their eyes."

Her own pregnancy was an inspiration for her work, Chiu said: she studied her own blood while pregnant to work on the Down's syndrome test.