By Dr. Ham Wasswa M.
The world of cancer diagnosis has witnessed a paradigm shift in the way cancer is detected and diagnosed. Traditional methods such as biopsy of tissue and costly imaging have dominated the medical world for a longtime.
However, the emergence of innovative techniques and the integration of cutting-edge technology have redefined the field. One such game changer is Targene Biotech Company in Huangpu district, Guangzhou, China which I and a team of the Development Watch Centre researchers visited during a seminar on Chinese Modernization and China-Africa Joint Development which was organized by China-Africa Institute (CAI). Targene Biotech, a pioneering and budding Chinese company is at the forefront of cancer diagnosis using urine and blood.
Cancer is a global health concern ravaging millions of lives every year especially in Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer is the second leading cause of death globally killing nearly 1 in 6 persons and approximately 70% of these deaths are from low- and middle-income countries. The early detection therefore is very vital for successful treatment and outcome of the affected. The approach used by Targene is poised to transform the landscape of cancer diagnosis to make it more accessible, non-invasive and economical. Targene’s work holds a promise for the future where early cancer diagnosis is within reach for all. The incredible work at Targene Biotech is in tandem with WHO’s two components of early detection that is; early diagnosis and screening.
Targene Biotech Ltd., is the brainchild of Mr. Shao Jian Yong who is the current President and Chief Scientist of the company. He recognized the need for less invasive methods and cost-effective means of diagnosing cancer. He therefore set out with a team of researchers to explore the power of liquid biopsy especially urine and blood to detect cancer in its early stages. The concept of this biotech company is ingenious: cancer cells shed DNA fragments into bodily fluids carrying with them genetic information about the tumor. By analyzing these DNA fragments, scientists at Targene are able to identify specific cancer mutations and alterations associated with different cancer types including urinary bladder cancer, colorectal, cervical, liver, prostate and esophageal cancers. All that is needed is circa forty milliliters of urine sample to detect one of these cancers.
The advantages of targene’s approach includes but not limited to; First, non-invasive; traditionally, biopsies have been done and they are very painful. For example, the bone marrow biopsy. Targene’s method being entirely non-invasive, patient is free of pain requiring only a blood and or a urine sample. This without doubt, reduces patient discomfort and associated complications.
Secondly, early detection; targene’s tech is highly sensitive, capable of detecting cancer at its earliest stage when treatment can be most effective and survival rates higher. A 95% survival rate has been reported if detection is done early among the cancers mentioned.
Thirdly, by identifying specific genetic alterations, this allows for treatment to be tailored individually to their unique cancer profile; and the fifth is that the method being used by Targene is cost effective compared to the costly traditional imaging and invasive biopsy picking.
The clinical impact of Targene’s approach cannot be underestimated as the ability to diagnose cancer at an early stage is crucial since this often times leads to better treatment outcomes and for the most part, complete remission of the cancer. This minimally invasive approach makes it easily acceptable and accessible to a larger population. Early diagnosis is relevant in all settings and in its absence, patients are diagnosed late when curative options may not hold much water.
Targene’s technology has showed significant promise in detecting a wide range of cancers including breast cancer, cervical cancer, esophageal cancer, prostate cancer and liver cancer which are very common in our Motherland-Uganda. Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer in the African region accounting for 22% of all female cancers and 12% of all newly diagnosed cancers. This method is especially suitable for such cancers that are notorious and often asymptomatic in their early stages.
It goes without saying that Targene’s future is a bright one as well as other partners that will get on board to explore this game changer in the field of cancer diagnosis. Despite this, there are some hurdles that Targene has to jump to be able to achieve successful outcomes. As with any emerging technology, standardization and validation are crucial ensuring that the method is consistent and delivers accurate results. Technology must undergo rigorous regulatory approval processes in areas where it will be embraced and considered. Collaboration with health authorities comes in handy in this case. Affordability and accessibility for a wide range of patients remains a valid concern especially in Africa where economies are just developing. Achieving the highest level of sensitivity and specificity is essential to minimize false positives and false negatives. Amazingly, the chief researcher at Targene, Mr. Binjie Xu, reported that the sensitivity of this cancer diagnosis method is at 95% while the specificity at 89%. Despite these challenges, the future prospects are promising with potential for early diagnosis to become a standard of care in our oncological practice so as to have better outcomes. Since 2012, China set up policies on early cancer diagnosis and the goal was to reach about 60% early screening rate amongst its population. This was only slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is no turning back and Targene reports show that there is steady progress to achieve this target by 2035.
The clinical impact of Targene’s cutting edge technology is very vital for cancers like liver cancer, bladder cancer that are often diagnosed late and hence poorer outcomes. However, the field of cancer detection using non-invasive methods faces challenges as mentioned above. Nonetheless, Targene’s future is bright and will even be brighter if African nations partnered with her so as to have better clinical outcomes for its people. For Uganda, the journey could start with the Uganda Cancer Institute benchmarking at Targene Biotech in China so that together, we continue efforts of building a community of shared prosperity for future of mankind in the new era of cancer diagnostics.
Dr. Ham Wasswa M. is a medical doctor and a Research Fellow at the Development Watch Centre.