Incredible cancer hope boost from CUHK test

Top News | Michelle Li 11 Aug 2017

Chinese University has discovered a potentially lifesaving screening procedure that will boost the survival rates of so- called "Cantonese cancer" patients to an incredible 97 percent.

Nasopharyngeal cancer, which originates in the nasopharynx, occurs in about 25 cases per 100,000 people in southern China - 25 times higher than the rest of the world.

The noninvasive procedure only requires a blood plasma sample that will be analyzed for the DNA of the Epstein- Barr virus - a ubiquitous virus closely associated with nasopharyngeal cancer - to help identify tumors.

Over 20,000 middle-aged Chinese males in Hong Kong without cancer symptoms participated in a study between 2013 and 2016. The findings were released yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Out of the 300 participants who agreed to be subjected to a further probe after screening positive for the Epstein- Barr virus, 34 were confirmed to have nasopharyngeal cancer.

Out of the nine who refused further investigation, one with the virus DNA was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer 32 months later and passed away two months after diagnosis.

James Lo Kam-chiu, who was confirmed with cancer by the study in 2015, said that he "would not have even imagined" screening positive.

"Were it not for the test, you wouldn't have guessed there was actually a tumor in there."

One of the most aggressive head and neck cancers, nasopharyngeal cancer was Hong Kong's sixth most common cancer among men and 13th among women in 2014, accounting for a relatively high 2.8 percent of all new cancer cases. It ranks as the eighth top cancer killer among Hong Kong men and No 15 among women.

Professor Ann King, at CUHK's department of imaging and interventional radiology, said the discovery could help save more lives not only in southern China but around the world.

"It is a tumor that is particularly [present] in China, and a lot of people from Hong Kong and southern China have emigrated all over the world, so this isn't just a problem for us."

The study will have a groundbreaking impact on future screening procedures specifically for this cancer type - which often lacks symptoms at the early stages - significantly increasing the odds of early diagnosis from 22 percent to 70 percent.

In 2013, 80 percent of all patients with nasopharyngeal cancer were diagnosed at advanced stages.

Professor Allen Chan Kwan-chee from CUHK's department of pathology and faculty of medicine said those diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer in the study were at significantly earlier stages. This means many in the future could similarly receive more timely and effective treatment, he added.

Though details of future screening tests are unclear, Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming, director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences at CUHK, said the method "appears to be a feasible practice in regions with high incidence."

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