Asian Scientist Magazine (Oct. 4, 2022) – Professor Dennis Lo has been awarded by the Lasker Foundation as the sole winner of the 2022 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for the discovery of fetal DNA in maternal blood. Lo’s breakthrough led to the development of accessible non-invasive prenatal testing for Down syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities.
Currently, Lo holds several prestigious positions as the Director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences, the Li Ka Shing Professor of Medicine and Professor of Chemical Pathology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
During the 1980s, laying the foundation to become the renowned scientist he is today, Lo was a 24-year-old medical student studying obstetrics at Oxford University. Scientists had been searching for fetal cells in pregnant women’s blood for decades in a bid to understand the genetic makeup of a fetus without the risking pregnancy—and Lo was eager to join the effort.
In 1996, Lo reasoned that, similar to tumors, a fetus may be able to release genetic material into plasma, the cell-free portion of blood. He then used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology to look for the Y chromosome—which, if found, could only have come from the fetus. The method was successful and Lo’s discovery opened the door to non-invasive prenatal diagnostic tests.
One particularly significant application of Lo’s discovery was the detection of Down syndrome. Initially, it proved difficult to identify the excess chromosome 21 with fetal DNA shrouded by maternal DNA. To get around this challenge, Lo harnessed digital PCR to amplify a chosen gene on chromosome 21 and a different gene on another chromosome as a reference. This method allowed him to compare the proportion of chromosome 21 in relation to the reference chromosome. Overrepresentation would indicate Down syndrome.
Over time, Lo has refined and adapted his methods to identify other chromosomal disorders. The tests have since been adopted in over 60 countries with 10 million tests performed in 2018. In recent years, Lo has put his talents and methods towards understanding tumor DNA to screen for cancers like nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Established in 1942 by Albert and Mary Lasker, the Lasker Foundation aims to celebrate the power of biomedical science and support life-saving biomedical research. As America’s most prestigious biomedical research awards, the Lasker Awards have recognized the contributions of leaders and scientists making waves in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure and prevention of human disease for over 75 years.
Awardees are selected by a distinguished international jury chaired by Dr Joseph L. Goldstein, recipient of the 1985 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Over the years, a staggering ninety-five Lasker Laureates have received the Nobel Prize including Dr Sydney Brenner and Dr Tu Youyou—each awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 and 2015 respectively.
Source: Lasker Foundation, Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong