2 May 2019
Hong Kong a Greater Bay Area Test Bed for Clinical Technology
As people in mainland China are increasingly concerned about looking after their health, the demand for advanced clinical diagnosis and medication has risen. To help meet this, the Chinese government has introduced measures like preferential tax schemes for treatment for cancer and rare diseases. Many mainlanders also consider travelling to Hong Kong to look for advanced medical services like diagnoses and even cancer-related treatments. This is due not only to the high reputation of Hong Kong’s medical system, but also the city’s access to new-generation medicines and devices, diagnostic tools and other advanced clinical technology approved by overseas regulatory bodies like the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Union’s European Medicines Agency (EMA).
Without recognised clinical data from Chinese patients, however, it is not easy to get approval for such advanced devices and clinical technology from China’s National Medical Products Administration (the former CFDA). Mainland patients, therefore, can find it difficult to receive these advanced treatment and services directly. However, with the Greater Bay Area planning to push ahead with increased cross-boundary cooperation in biomedical services, Hong Kong is in an ideal position to serve as a platform providing test data and helping the mainland adopt foreign clinical technology.
Test Data the Key
The gap between the growing demand in mainland China for hi-tech medical services and the ability to provide them was highlighted by Stanley Lam, the founder and managing director of Hong Kong-based medical start-up OncoSeek, in an interview carried out by HKTDC Research. Explaining the problem, Lam said: “Mainland patients suffering from serious illnesses are relatively more willing to pay for new-generation medical diagnosis and treatment despite the higher cost. But their access to advanced services, such as medical diagnosis for monitoring the spread of a cancer, is limited because many such advanced technologies developed in the US or Europe are not immediately available to the patients in mainland China . This is due to the lack of corresponding clinical tests in Asia including Hong Kong and the mainland.
Lam pointed out that this lack of relevant clinical data from the Chinese community is hampering the adoption of medical techniques that can save lives. He cited the example of the enumeration of circulating tumor cells (CTCs), which is an advanced and well-established method for real-time cancer detection and monitoring. CTC tests carried out on blood samples have been shown to be an effective tool for monitoring cancer metastasis – that is, cancer spreading to surrounding tissues and distant organs. The majority of cancer-associated deaths is highly correlated with metastasis, which poses a deadly threat to cancer patients. The traditional method of diagnosis, via a biopsy, can only be performed on tumours that have already developed, usually of larger sizes. In many cases, this delays cancer detection and treatment.
OncoSeek is pioneering the use of liquid biopsies to provide CTC services for cancer patients. The company has developed a technique to apply CE-IVD marked and FDA-registered microfluidics technology to detect and enrich CTCs from blood samples. Combined with its own developed CTC analysis software and reagents developed in-house in Hong Kong, OncoSeek has used its proprietary analysis platform to test more than 300 blood samples obtained locally. The company also combines the CTC with its Next-generation Sequencing (NGS) service to help reveal patients’ cancer genomic spectrums and detect the presence of clinically relevant mutations, which could serve as an important reference for doctors looking to prescribe precision therapy for individual cancer patients.
Clinical Test Bed
Lam highlighted how his company’s work can help mainland patients, saying: “OncoSeek’s proprietary CTC technology has been validated using samples from Chinese patients via cooperation with Faculty of Medicine of the University of Hong Kong, which helps apply CTC testing to patients seeking medical treatment in Hong Kong, including those coming across the boundary to the city. Our case has shown that Hong Kong can offer an ideal healthcare platform using most advanced technologies, in accordance with the stringent medical standards, to benefit Chinese patients.”
Companies like OncoSeek would probably benefit from a more conducive environment for clinical technology players. Progress is being made on this front. The Hong Kong SAR Government’s 2019-2020 budget allocated about HK$1.2 billion to establish the Hong Kong Genome Institute and take forward the Hong Kong Genome Project announced by the Policy Address last year. This project aims to carry out 40,000 to 50,000 whole genome sequencing over the next six years. This should help promote clinical applications and innovative scientific research on genomic treatment for patients in the city and beyond.
Meanwhile, the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, promulgated in February 2019, contains proposals to foster the research and development of clinical medicine in the Bay Area. And more recently, at the second plenary meeting of the Leading Group for the Development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area on 1 March 2019, the Central Government set out plans to facilitate customs clearance for research samples, testing reagents and genetic resources being transported between different administrations in the Bay Area. With such measures in place, Hong Kong is set to become an important test bed for the application in the Bay Area of advanced clinical technology developed overseas.
[Remark: For more information, please refer to HKTDC research article: Hong Kong Leading the Way in Greater Bay Area Biomedical Services Cooperation]
 Source: The 2019-20 Budget, Hong Kong SAR Government
 For details, please refer to: Outline Development Plan for Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area Promulgated
 For details, please refer to: Greater Bay Area to Introduce Eight Facilitation Measures