One of Hong Kong’s most renowned medical scientists has called for the Greater Bay Area to open its doors to genetic testing firms from the city and extend patent protection there.
Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming of Chinese University said the moves would be important steps towards realising Beijing’s ambitions of creating a hi-tech region that could compete with other leading economic clusters such as Silicon Valley in the United States or Tokyo’s Bay Area.
“If the Greater Bay Area wants to compete with technology pioneers in other bay areas, there should be more flexibility and encouragement for people to start their own businesses,” Lo said.
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For a start, he said, the current ban on Hongkongers opening genetic testing companies in mainland China could be lifted.
“It will be very important to do so,” he said, explaining that Hong Kong, with only 7.5 million people, would not be able to develop influential hi-tech companies.
But that would be possible in the bay area, which connects Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province, with a total population of 72 million people.
He said genetic testing businesses were tightly regulated on the mainland and could be run only by companies with a mainland background.
An associate dean of Chinese University’s medical school and a biotechnology researcher for more than 20 years in Hong Kong, Lo won the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences last month. Described as the global “Oscars of Science”, it came with prize money of US$3 million (HK$23 million).
He was honoured for discovering the presence of fetal DNA in the blood of pregnant women, enabling prenatal testing for Down syndrome and other genetic diseases.
His achievement led to the development of a non-invasive prenatal test using blood samples only, now used by more than 7 million women every year in more than 90 countries.
Based on a similar idea, he also devised a screening tool to detect about 50 types of cancer with a few drops of blood.
Lo spoke to the Post last week after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor suggested that Hong Kong create a regional hi-tech and innovation hub together with neighbouring Shenzhen.
On a visit to Shenzhen earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping also called for efforts to foster the integrated development of Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland cities in the Greater Bay Area.
Lo said there was a need to break down existing barriers in the region to speed up the development of innovation.
Aside from allowing Hong Kong genetic testing companies to operate in the area, he said there was also a need to extend the patent protection available in Hong Kong to the mainland.
Lo said patents were important as they gave researchers a sense of ownership of their inventions and fostered commercialisation of findings, which could extend the technology to more people.
Currently, however, a patent registered in Hong Kong to protect an invention does not automatically extend to the mainland.
So someone such as Lo who hoped to introduce an invention for public use in the Greater Bay Area must apply for patents in three jurisdictions – Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland.
“When we are talking about the integration in the Greater Bay Area, could there be a system that allows me certain rights in the region if I have a patent in Hong Kong?” he said. “That would be very valuable.”
He pointed out that in the United States, a patent granted anywhere in the country would be valid in the Silicon Valley in the San Francisco bay area as well.
Introducing such integration would not only strengthen the Greater Bay Area’s global competitiveness, but also bring benefits on both sides of the border.
He said Hong Kong’s universities ranked highly in the world and were incubators of new ideas.
“Opening up the Greater Bay Area could encourage more academics to go there to start businesses,” he said. “If you have dedicated more than a decade to developing a technology, naturally you would hope that more people will benefit.”
As an internationally acclaimed scientist, Lo said his advice for other researchers was to take on something not done by others, look for details that appear counter-intuitive, and work in a team.
Lo’s discovery, identifying fetal DNA in maternal blood, took him years of research and numerous wrong turns along the way. He was cooking instant noodles one day when he had his eureka moment that finally led to success.
He said: “You can’t treat your work as work. It would be very stressful to think about work after getting off duty. But if you see it as a hobby or an interest, the way I do, it would not be a problem.”
This article Top scientist calls for Hong Kong genetic testing firms to be allowed in Greater Bay Area first appeared on South China Morning Post