Hong Kong a ‘Good Place’ for Healthtech Firm: Top Cancer Scientist

A world-leading researcher into underlying causes and predictors of cancer chose to set up a medical technology business in Hong Kong, rather than North America, the place where he has been based as an academic.

Moshe Szyf is an exponent of the study of epigenetics; those changes caused by modification of a living organism’s gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. From the insights gained from these studies, the aim is to create early detection methods and effective therapies for cancer and other human diseases.

Last year Mr Szyf set up his business – HKG Epitherapeutics Ltd (Canada) – at the Hong Kong Science Park at Pak Shek Kok, in the New Territories.

One of the things that brought him to the city was his research into hepatocellular carcinoma, a primary malignancy of the liver.

“In China it is an epidemic,” he told the Healthtech 020 Summit in Hong Kong. “Half a million Chinese every year are dying from it, and 60 million Chinese are at risk of getting it, because they are infected with hepatitis B,” stated Mr Szyf, who holds the James McGill Professorship and GlaxoSmithKline-CIHR Chair in Pharmacology at McGill University, at Montreal in Québec, Canada.

“Our goal is to discover early predictions of cancer using proprietary approaches and the immense potential of epigenetics. And then – provided with next-generation sequencing automation – focus on tests for healthy people,” said Mr Szyf at the event, part of the StartmeupHK Festival 2018, an initiative of InvestHK, the city’s inward investment promotion agency.

“Sequencing automation” was a reference to automated sequencing machines for analysis of DNA, and the creation of databases that have in turn led to the development of computer software to assemble, manipulate and analyse genetic sequence.


Choosing Hong Kong


The scientist explained his path to creating a Hong Kong business for this work.

He told delegates at the event: “There were many reasons why I came here. The first was that a lot of my research was done in China and it was the closest place. The second reason was, I tried to figure out how to start up a company in [mainland] China, and I figured out I couldn’t figure this out. And the third reason was InvestHK.”

He added: “So I went and met the leadership of InvestHK, and I got convinced that this is a good place to actually start business: not to take your business from North America and bring it here, but to start it here and then take it to North America. And I think that… will become a more common model.”

The scientist said that – in collaboration with one of the largest hospitals in Beijing – his research team had found there was a signature of “DNA methylation” in white blood cells.

“We took that and developed a small set of markers that together can discover hepatocellular carcinoma at its earliest stages,” he noted.

Mr Szyf describes DNA methylation as the “absolute identity” of a cell. “It is the software that drives the cell, and if the cell changes its function, you will see it in the DNA methylation profile. And we can map it,” he explained.

He added: “DNA methylation is applicable to any human disease, because any human disease involves a change in the ‘software’.”

Mr Szyf – described in the Healthtech Summit programme as the inventor of the first patents on DNA methylation and cancer, and also the founder of Methylgene Inc, identified as the first pharmaceutical firm to develop epigenetic pharmacology – said the aim of his work was to create predictive tests that were “accurate, robust, cost effective, and applicable to entire populations, rather than boutique, high end, and expensive”.