Start-ups at medical cutting edge
Innovative tools from three Hong Kong entrepreneurs are fast-tracking diagnosis for dangerous diseases.
30 May 2019
In the 19th century, Hong Kong made an indelible mark on the world of medicine – it was here that the lifecycle of one of humanity’s greatest scourges, malaria, was discovered, opening the way to control and cure.
Cutting-edge medicine is set to take a place of honour in the city again, judging by a seminar titled “Biomedical Technologies that are Changing Healthcare”, which took place on 14 May as part of the HKTDC Hong Kong International Medical and Healthcare Fair.
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government has made a concerted push to promote innovation and technology (I&T), putting significant investments into initiatives that strengthen the city’s I&T sectors, with a view to creating a world-class innovation hub. The Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) has been one of the key channels for I&T-focused investment. According to Simon Sze, Associate Director, Biomedical Technology Cluster at the HKSTP (main picture), since its establishment in 2001, HKSTP has become home to more than 120 biotech companies, working closely with local universities to research, develop and commercialise smart solutions that address serious health conditions.
Three of the best and brightest biotech companies to emerge from HKSTP were featured at the seminar, each of them helping to change lives in the most incredible ways.
Dementia – the eyes have it
People are living longer worldwide but this is likely to bring increased rates of age-related neurological conditions such as stroke and dementia. Benny Zee Chung-ying, Head of Biostatistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and his team developed a technology that detects white matter hyperintensities, or WMH, through the retina of an eye. By detecting an increase of white matter in an otherwise normal brain, an Automatic Retinal Image Analysis (ARIA) can predict with high accuracy and specificity whether someone is at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a common cause of dementia.
Early detection for WMH is key, as lifestyle changes have been proven to be effective in reducing the amount of white matter in a brain, according to Prof Zee, who founded biomedical start-up Healthview Bioanalytic at HKSTP. The company’s detection technology is now used in a number of optical chains and health clinics around Hong Kong.
Saving scoliosis sufferers from cancer
Scoliosis is a condition that results in the spine twisting out of alignment, causing limited spine motion and decreased breathing capacity. Globally, scoliosis has a prevalence of 5% but some regions and populations are hit harder than others.
“In Guangzhou, it was found that about 14% of girls aged between 13 and 14 had scoliosis,” said Yongping Zheng, Technical Advisor at Telefield Medical Imaging Limited, explaining the need for improved scoliosis scans.
Prof Zheng outlined the current methods used to detect and monitor scoliosis in patients, all of which have serious drawbacks for patients. For example, X-ray imaging has serious implications for anyone suffering a lifetime of scoliosis; one study in Denmark linked childhood exposure to X-ray imaging to a fivefold increase in cancer later in life, Prof Zheng said.
This is partly why he helped develop Scolioscan, a radiation-free scan for deformed spines. The device is safer for long-term use and the monitoring of sufferers, and is also portable, making it easier for the technology to reach rural populations. Scolioscan now has 23 patent families and has been approved for use in such markets as the European Union and Australia.
Slashing illness test times
Point-of-care testing (POCT) is a medical diagnostic test done when a patient comes in to receive treatment. It’s a vital part of patient care, as accurate identification of the underlying illness defines the necessary steps to proper treatment, and in some cases prevents further infection. Kelvin Chiu, however, saw flaws in the time-intensive, low-accuracy processes currently involved in POCT. “It’s a known problem − we have an overload problem in the public system,” said Mr Chiu, CEO of Sanwa Biotech Limited. “What we’re trying to do is revolutionise this testing paradigm.”
His company developed the Array Based LED-induced Fluorescence ImmunoAssay platform, or ALiA, a rapid and portable diagnostic platform capable of slashing the time it takes to diagnose potentially critical illnesses, without sacrificing accuracy. By giving doctors on the frontline access to laboratory-grade tools like these, Mr Chiu believed the potential results could be far-reaching, detailing one area where ALiA could have a huge impact. “In the world, roughly more than half a million people have passed away because of this [the flu] last year.”
Through the use of a single, tiny biochip that is capable of handling extremely small volumes of fluid, the device tests for a variety of diseases using a biomarker array. Testing time is reduced to just 15 minutes, a massive reduction from the standard 24 to 48 hours it currently takes to receive results in the Hong Kong public healthcare system. Mr Chiu said the system could also be used for ex-clinical applications, offering customised solutions in areas like food safety and pharmaceutical research and development.
Sanwa Biotech devices will soon be used widely in local hospitals, following two years clearing the necessary hurdles to market in Hong Kong. Still, it was a process this promising biotech start-up was willing to undertake in order to serve the local community and, with the support of HKSTP, it achieved its goal of reaching the masses.
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