Several cancer-related organisations in Singapore are excited with the recent announcement that Medicare, the United States federal health insurance programme, will reimburse patients with advanced lung cancer who use a technology developed in Singapore. 

Lucence, which has headquarters in Singapore and the US, said: “This approval establishes Lucence as the first and only Asian-headquartered healthcare services company to secure United States national insurance coverage.” 

Called LiquidHallmark, it is able to match lung cancers to a targeted drug, should there be one. With this, up to half the patients with advanced lung cancer may find a treatment that could help them. The service costs US$2,245 (S$3,000). 

The company said there are more than 150,000 new advanced lung cancer patients aged 65 and above in the US annually. 

This blood test has been available since 2020. Dr Tan Min-Han, an oncologist who is chief executive officer of the Lucence Group, said about 1,000 such tests were done in Asia in 2022 for lung, breast, colon and prostate cancers. 

Cancer doctors turn to the matching test when conventional treatments no longer work for their patients to see if newer and usually more expensive drugs might work, instead of simply trying out these drugs on the patient. 

In some cases, given the uncertainty of outcome, patients may also not be put on treatment. 

Dr Tan told The Straits Times that the treatment selection “is not only about choosing a drug to use; it is also about choosing a drug not to use, when using that drug could be futile”. 

Dr Donald Poon, an oncologist in private practice who has been using this test on some patients, said it is useful when biopsy is not possible, either because the cancer is inaccessible or because the patient is too frail. 

He added that after more than a year of advanced cancer treatment, this test is a convenient way to assess if a resistant mutation has developed so treatment that is no longer appropriate can be stopped and perhaps allow for a switch to suitable ones. 

Dr Kong Hwai Loong, who is in the private sector and a visiting consultant at the National University Health System, said that if the targeted drug is identified early in the treatment, it should result in good outcomes. 

“In the best-case scenario, targeted treatment almost always induces a good response, which typically lasts for years, during which the patient is well and free from symptoms,” he added.

An elated Dr Tan said: “I am very grateful for the crucial support for Lucence in its early years by A*Star’s key seeding of our company. This important foundation carried us through to today’s important milestone, where our quality and evidence of our technology have been recognised by Medicare, the world’s largest healthcare payer. 

“Partners such as National University Cancer Institute, Singapore (NCIS); National Cancer Centre Singapore; Singapore General Hospital; Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Changi General Hospital have also played an important role on this journey of validation and evidence development to benefit patients worldwide.” 

Professor Tan Sze Wee, assistant chief executive of A*Star’s Innovation and Enterprise Group, said: “A*Star aims to translate research excellence to impact, and in this case by bringing technologies to market via our spin-offs and enabling local technologies to go global. 

“We look forward to Lucence’s development of more innovative health solutions in Singapore and beyond.” 

Professor Goh Boon Cher, a senior consultant at NCIS, which had helped test it, said: “NCIS is pleased to have played an important role in LiquidHallmark’s core clinical development and success. We are excited to see its validation as a clinical diagnostic test leading to a Medicare approval.” 

Professor Lim Soon Thye, deputy chief executive officer (clinical) at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, is just as happy. 

He said: “It is heartening that a Singapore-developed medical technology that profiles cancer is now more widely accessible to enable better targeted therapy selection. 

“This move is a testament to Singapore’s biomedical ecosystem capabilities to successfully conceptualise, develop and commercialise clinical solutions that will directly benefit patients.” 

Mr Soh Leng Wan, assistant chief executive officer (manufacturing and engineering) at Enterprise Singapore, said Medicare’s decision to reimburse the use of this test is a significant milestone as it “proves the quality, safety and effectiveness” of the test. 

He added: “Enterprise Singapore had supported Lucence’s entry into the US market, including the development of a commercialisation road map and sending experienced Singaporeans to kick-start its operations there.”