Dennis Lo scoops ‘Oscar of Science’ for foetal DNA discovery

13 September 2020

Professor Dennis Lo (Croucher Senior Medical Research Fellow 2006), of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), has won the prestigious 2021 Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences, an award renowned as the “Oscar of Science” and rivalling the Nobel prizes.

Lo, Director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences and Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Medicine, CUHK, received his latest accolade for his ground-breaking 1997 discovery that foetal DNA is present in maternal blood, and for the resulting non-invasive genetic foetal screening tests he developed over the following decade.

The tests are now used by millions of pregnant women worldwide, with Down’s Syndrome among the genetic disorders that can be safely identified.

For the top annual prizes announced on 10 September 2020, the Breakthrough Foundation awarded US$3 million each to Lo and the recipients of three other Life Sciences prizes, as well as to the recipients of one prize for Mathematics and one for Fundamental Physics, in recognition of their “profound” and “transformative” discoveries.

“I am very honoured and humbled to be given the chance to have this award,” Lo said. “It is also a rather generous award. Generally, it is said to be the largest in monetary value.”

He would use some of the funds to contribute back to the institutions that had helped him, starting from his school, St Joseph’s College, he said.

Lo is the first Hong Kong recipient of the Life Sciences prize. “The award is important because we need a report card on how competitive we are. Winning the prize gives the idea that with our funding structure and training we can do work that is internationally competitive.

“It will also stimulate our students, particularly graduate students, to think that they can contribute by being scientists. And I hope more talented people will decide to join our team, not just from Hong Kong and Mainland China, but elsewhere.”

The Breakthrough Foundation was set up by Google’s Sergey Brin and tech entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr Priscilla Chan; and Israeli-Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and his wife Julia. Its annual prizes, now in their ninth year, aim to support scientists “working on the biggest and most fundamental questions”. Winners are chosen by a committee of previous recipients.

Due to the global pandemic, this year’s awards ceremony has been postponed until March 2021.

Meanwhile, the Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP), the premier global molecular diagnostics professional society, announced on the same day that Lo was one of three recipients of its highest honour, the Award for Excellence in Molecular Diagnostics, for his pioneering work on the biology and diagnostic applications of cell-free nucleic acids in plasma.

Lo has received numerous awards during his career, including the 2005 State Natural Science Award from the State Council of China; 2014 King Faisal International Prize for Medicine; 2016 Thomson Reuters Citation Laureate – Chemistry; inaugural Future Science Prize – Life Science Prize in 2016; and the Outstanding Achievements Award at the 11th annual WuXi PharmaTech Life Science and Chemistry Awards in 2017.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2011 and a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2013. He is a Founding Member of the Hong Kong Academy of Sciences.

Lo has reflected further on on his research and the challenges he had to overcome in order to achieve his award winning breakthroughs. To view the full interview, please click here.

Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Cambridge and Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the University of Oxford, where he was subsequently appointed University Lecturer in Clinical Biochemistry and Honorary Consultant Chemical Pathologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital. He joined Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in 1997, where he is now Director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences, Li Ka Shing Professor of Medicine, and Professor of Chemical Pathology. He is also Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Medicine at CUHK. He received his Croucher Senior Medical Research Fellowship in 2006.

To view Professor Lo’s Croucher profile, please click here