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Another reminder of Hong Kong’s progress towards becoming a biotech hub emerged last week when an international team, led by researchers from the city, unveiled a blood test for identifying dementia at its early stages. The work, directed by those at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, allows for treatment of the neurodegenerative condition before the onset of symptoms.

Team head and university president Professor Nancy Ip Yuk-yu said the easy, precise and minimally invasive test offered a “feasible solution for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease” with an accuracy rate of nearly 90 per cent. Such results would help identify suitable candidates for the new drug, which was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration last year.

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Dementia affects more than 55 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly 10 million new cases are diagnosed each year, and Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia.

Early detection has been notoriously difficult, relying on experts who must make often subjective clinical assessments. Patients and their families usually only become aware of a need to see doctors when symptoms appear and the illness is too advanced to treat.

The blood test is seen as suitable for those with a family history of dementia or aged 55 and above who show signs of memory loss. It has already been administered by a private company and researchers are in talks with city authorities about it becoming part of regular public health screenings.

It is the latest feather in the cap of the city’s world-class university system. Last July, Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming, a molecular biologist at Chinese University, introduced a new blood test for cancer. Previously, diagnosis required biopsies or study of “tumour marker” alterations in blood proteins – lengthy processes that are invasive, costly and troublesome. The new tests illustrate the value of supporting research. They not only help patients around the world, but also support a Hong Kong life science ecosystem that can drive more advances in the future.

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