If it hadn’t been for the American science fiction horror movie Alien 3 , one of the brightest lights in Hong Kong’s scientific community could well have spent his days staring into a microscope and performing autopsies. “The night before the [job] interview, I went to see Alien 3 – which opens with a postmortem. I thought, ‘Do I really want to start my days with a postmortem?’ So, in the end I became a chemical pathologist – we look at blood rather than dead bodies,” says Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming , the Li Ka Shing professor of medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). It seems, then, that we have American film director David Fincher to thank in part for Lo’s many contributions to health – from the development of non-invasive prenatal testing to new screening tests for cancer. Lo’s dry sense of humour speaks to 13 years in the UK – at Cambridge University, where he got his undergraduate degree, and then Oxford University where he worked as a doctor, completed his doctor of philosophy degree and then stayed on as faculty. Lo won the US$3 million 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for discovering that fetal DNA is present in maternal blood and can be used for the prenatal testing of Down’s syndrome and other genetic diseases. The Breakthrough awards, known as the “Oscars of science”, recognise the world’s top scientists and reward the winners with the single biggest financial prize going. While at Oxford in the 1990s, Lo heard about a technology that is now familiar to us all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic – the PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, test that detects genetic material from a specific organism. Could a coronavirus test be as simple and fast as a pregnancy test? Canadian immunologist and geneticist John Bell gave a lecture at Oxford about the new technology that he said would change the world. Excited, Lo approached Bell and asked him to teach him the new technology. He did. “Like any youngster with a new toy I began wondering what I could use it for. I did obstetrics and knew about prenatal testing so decided to see if I could use the PCR to test the fetal cells in mother’s blood. If the mother was having a baby boy, maybe I could see the Y chromosome in her blood,” says Lo, who is the scientific director of CUHK’s Centre for Novostics – or novel diagnostics. His test didn’t work, but he graduated and became a junior doctor and was constantly thinking about the project. He returned to Oxford University to get his Doctor of Philosophy degree. Still he couldn’t crack this puzzle, and returned to his work as a doctor. In 1997, he and his wife decided they would buck the trend of Hongkongers going abroad and planned their return to Hong Kong. In search of a new career avenue, Lo rethought the idea of looking for fetal cells in a mother’s blood. Blood is made up of not only cells but also plasma, and he wondered whether what he was looking for could be in the plasma. “That thinking was very heretical because people would always talk about DNA being inside cells, it shouldn’t be outside cells floating around. I decided to check, I had nothing to lose, and as I didn’t have money for research, I could only do something very simple,” says Lo. Lo occasionally cooked instant noodles in his room as a student, and decided to apply that simple method of boiling liquid to his project, taking a few drops of the plasma and boiling it to see if he could see the Y chromosome. It worked, and instantly put Lo on a fast-paced trajectory at the forefront of modern medicine. “Within my career, I’ve seen DNA sequencing technology increase over a million times in speed. What other field can claim that? Imagine if your car went faster by a million times – you’d be in Mars in no time,” says Lo. He returned to Hong Kong just before the 1997 handover and took up a position as a senior lecturer in the department of chemical pathology at CUHK. His initial grant for research was a “minuscule” HK$660,000 over three years, but in 2000 he was given a HK$4 million grant from the Hong Kong government’s Innovation and Technology Commission. After the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2002-03, when his research into non-invasive prenatal testing was interrupted and his team helped sequence the Sars virus and discover the existence of multiple viral strains, the grants shot up to the HK$40 million-60 million range. His most recent grant, he says, is for more than HK$400 million. “The level of funding in Hong Kong has gone up significantly. The Hong Kong government is putting more money into research and the private sector is also putting in more money. My group has some slight advantages because the previous products are already bringing in royalty income, so I can redeploy some of that into our research,” says Lo. There is an advantage to designing tests for individual cancers, as they are likely to be more sensitive and specific. Head and neck cancer is very common in southern China Professor Dennis Lo Funding aside, he believes one of his team’s core strengths is their way of looking at the basic science in conjunction with its applications. “Some of the workers in science sometimes are only focused too much on basics, or are too ‘applied’, and I think you really need to straddle both,” he says. The applications have been coming thick and fast in recent years. In 2014, with funding from a venture capital fund, he co-founded a firm called Cirina, which in 2017 merged with a US company called Grail. That firm launched a multi-cancer test which can test a single blood sample for 50 different types of cancer. The UK’s National Health Service is doing a trial of the test with 140,000 people. “There is an advantage to designing tests for individual cancers, as they are likely to be more sensitive and specific. Head and neck cancer is very common in southern China. The lifetime risk for south Cantonese is one in 39, but if you catch it early it can be cured. We have invented an early screening test for that,” says Lo. His team recently launched a test in Hong Kong called Take2 Prophecy which requires only a blood sample to screen for early detection of head and neck cancer and costs just HK$1,000. Lo admits he hasn’t taken the test yet himself, but he does his best to keep fit by starting the day off with a breakfast of bran and skimmed milk and going to the gym two or three times a week after work. Doctor who changed life for pregnant women predicts biotech boom Last year was a good year for the professor. In August the Royal Society in the UK awarded him the Royal Medal 2021 for his contributions to the advancement of “natural knowledge” in biological sciences. In November, he and two colleagues were named among the “top 20 translational researchers of 2020” by the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology . He’s in a good place right now. “I’ve been working for the last 25 years, dreaming about this type of set-up. My office here is one of the first I have had that has a window, which helps,” says Lo. Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .