Healthtech Innovations: Non-Invasive Ultrasound Ocular Drug Delivery Technology
23 March 2021
Retinopathy, which includes diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration, not only impairs vision and causes inconvenience to patients – it may also cause blindness in serious cases. Currently, intravitreal injection is the common method of treating retinopathy. However, this highly invasive treatment method involves a certain degree of risk and may also come with side-effects. Opharmic Technology founder and CEO Langston Suen and his team have developed an ultrasound-mediated non-invasive drug delivery technology which, using the sclera as the medium for delivery, guides the drug directly from the episclera to the retina. By so doing, it spares patients an invasive procedure. Suen told HKTDC Research about the road taken by his company in researching and developing this technology in Hong Kong and about the company’s future plans.
R&D Focus: Non-Invasive Ultrasound Technology
Suen began researching ultrasound-assisted osmosis when he was pursuing his PhD degree at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. After graduating, he set up Opharmic in 2016, and joined the Incu-Bio Programme launched by the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP). Asked to give a brief explanation of his ultrasound ocular drug delivery technology, he said: “This is a non-invasive drug delivery technology which, with the sclera acting as the medium for drug delivery and using a compact ocular drug release device featuring ultrasound-assisted osmosis, delivers the drug bit by bit from the episclera to a patent’s eyeball. Since the retina is located beneath the sclera, this is the shortest route for the drug molecules to reach the retina directly via the sclera.”
Through research conducted jointly with local universities and the Hong Kong Eye Hospital, Suen’s brainchild has gradually come of age. In 2017, Opharmic’s ocular drug delivery device won two special awards and a special jury commendation medal at the 45th International Exhibition of Inventions, Geneva. Suen said: “Our product completed pre-clinical animal testing in Hong Kong at the end of 2020, which proved that this technology does no damage to the structure of the eyeball and vision, and its efficacy is similar to that of conventional intravitreal injection. It can be expected that the whole pre-clinical testing process will be completed by the end of 2021 and we will start recruiting patients to embark on clinical trials in 2022. At present, we have approached the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as eye hospitals in mainland China, Europe and the US to look into plans for conducting clinical trials. Should clinical trials proceed smoothly, it can be expected that our product will be launched onto the market in 2023.”
Intravitreal injection, which is currently in common use, is a highly invasive procedure during which an injection needle pierces through the patient’s eyeball to administer the drug. This method not only causes discomfort to the patient and leaves a wound, but may also induce retinal hemorrhage, a rise in intraocular pressure, infection or other complications. By contrast, with ultrasound ocular drug delivery technology, only the applicator on the ocular drug delivery device will have direct contact with the sclera, and the ultrasound does not produce any marked vibration or heat which may cause discomfort to the patient. In addition, the technology can also reduce the workload of medical staff in preparation and post- procedural care.
Suen said: “Conventional injection is a surgical procedure. The nurse first has to sterilise the area around the eye of the patient and then cover the face with a mask. The doctor has to administer eye drops for local anaesthesia and use an expander to enlarge the eye of the patient before injecting the drug into the eyeball vitreous with a fine needle. The whole process of this, together with post-procedural care, takes about one hour. By comparison, the procedure of ultrasound ocular drug delivery is much simpler. The doctor only needs to anesthetise the patient’s eye with eye drops and sterilise the face before administering the drug to the patient’s sclera by using the delivery device, and in 30 to 60 seconds the drug will be fully delivered to the back of the eye. Since this is a non-invasive procedure, the patient will not need any wound caring and the time of the whole procedure can be shortened to only 20 minutes.”
When asked whether charges for patients would be high when this new product is launched onto the market, Suen responded: “The design of the drug delivery device is similar to that of the ear thermometer. It is reusable and the only consumable is the drug applicator which has direct contact with the sclera of the patient. It is projected that with mass production, the cost of the drug applicator can be controlled at about the same level as a syringe. Since the cost of the device will be borne by the medical institution, the patient only has to pay for the doctor’s fee, the drug and the applicator.”
Capitalising on Hong Kong’s Edge
The Covid-19 pandemic has inevitably raised public awareness of the development of health technology (healthtech). In recent years, increasing support has been given by the Hong Kong government and local organisations to innovation and technology, including via the Technology Start-up Support Scheme for Universities (TSSSU) launched by the Innovation and Technology Bureau and a series of incubation programmes launched by the HKSTP. Suen said: “It is through the Incu-Bio programme, launched by the Hong Kong Science Park, that we came into contact with stakeholders in the right sectors and found the right medical product manufacturer in Hong Kong to produce the prototype of the ocular drug delivery device for us. It is also through this programme that we got connected with business partners such as hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacturers in the mainland and overseas.”
Suen opined that Hong Kong, as an international financial centre, offers start-ups opportunities to reach a wide range of investors. He added: “Our company finished its first round of financing in 2017 and we are now proceeding with the second round, which will be used to fund clinical trials and subsequent product R&D and production.”
Besides its advantages as a financial centre, Hong Kong also has a pool of innovation and scientific research talent to support the development of healthtech enterprises. Currently, Opharmic has an international medical team comprising more than 10 members, including individuals from the US, Germany, the UK and Sri Lanka. The presence of foreign members on the team does not mean that Hong Kong is short of scientific research personnel, however. Suen pointed out: “Hong Kong is an international city. We did not recruit these foreign team members from abroad as all of them had already established a foothold in Hong Kong. Last year our company rolled out our first summer internship programme for university students, and we plan to recruit suitable graduates from among these interns.”
Collaboration with Mainland, Europe and US Drug Makers
According to Suen, the medical device industry usually does not rely on product sales to make a profit, but rather adopts a business model whereby joint product development with a drug manufacturer is carried out under technology licensing. After the medical device is developed, it will be bundled with the relevant drug for sale. As such, Opharmic is striving to secure exclusive collaboration with an ophthalmic drug manufacturer to jointly develop its product and devise sales arrangements targeting different markets.
Suen explained: “Bundling our product with the drug designated by the pharmaceutical manufacturer for exclusive distribution helps to strengthen the market position of the product, a position which can hardly be replaced.”
Meanwhile, Opharmic is extending the application of its ultrasound ocular drug delivery technology to areas other than ophthalmology, including dermatology and regenerative medicine. The company is also providing short-term and long-term R&D services to business partners and clients in a move to pursue business diversification.
As a local biomedicine start-up, Opharmic naturally sees Hong Kong as its major market. However, the company also plans to apply to drug regulators in the US, EU and mainland China for international certification to pave the way for expansion into these markets.
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