Making inroads into customised healthcare

Professor Ken Yung, Associate Head and Professor of the Department of Biology of HKBU and his team have developed a new technology that successfully extracts stem cells from adult animals and transplants the manipulated stem cells back into the same animal. OPER Technology Limited set up by Dr Cathy Lui, HKBU alumna who is concurrently HKBU Senior Research Associate and CEO of the Company, and Professor Yung, Chairman of the Company, is a pioneering biotech company which aims at developing a new tailor-made therapy to treat neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

In the study entitled “Neural Stem Cells Harvested from Live Brains by Antibody-Conjugated Magnetic Nanoparticles”, Professor Yung and his team demonstrated for the first time a simple magnetic separation process that can extract stem/progenitor cells from the choroid plexus lining along the subventricular zone of the brain of rats. The process involved the introduction of magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles coated with antibodies (Ab-MNPs) into that specific region of the brain with a superfine micro-syringe. Compared with the traditional method of using embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, neural stem/progenitor cells offer a potential neural stem cell therapy and regenerative medicine for humans that are remarkably safe and viral-free. Neural stem cells possess the unique characteristic of being able to self-replicate and generate the various phenotypes of the nervous system. They can be extracted, modified and re-applied to the same subject. As the cells originate from the patients themselves, the risk of rejection by the immune system is greatly reduced. This technique is potentially applicable to both young and adult patients.

The study also shows that the magnetic microsurgery process is simple and safe to carry out on animal subjects. After extracting the stem cells from the nanoparticles, the team were able to grow them in a dish, suggesting that the cells were undamaged by the process. The rats that received the treatment remained alive and apparently healthy. Thus, another novel application of the study is the isolation of multipotent neural stems cells/progenitor from adult brains without killing the animal or inflicting significant damage.

Telling of the market potential and impact of the research, the autologous neural stem cell harvest technologies developed by Professor Yung and his team clinched the Gold Medal in the Surgery Category and the Award for High Scientific and Technological Level of the Invention at the International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva, the largest of its kind in the world. 

Earlier in the year, OPER Technology Limited, one of the first batch of technology spin-off companies of Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) that was created to commercialise the findings from the team’s research project, won The Red Herring Top 100 Global Award, fresh off the back of winning The Red Herring Top 100 Asia Award. Locally in Hong Kong, it received the Gold Prize of the Technology Start-up Award under the Fifth Bank of China (HK) FITMI Achievement Award organised by Hong Kong Federation of Innovative Technologies and Manufacturing Industries Ltd (FITMI) and Bank of China (Hong Kong), and was also named Top 50 start-up companies in the world by Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) 2015. The company has also performed outstandingly in international competitions. It was selected as the finalist of GSK Neuro 2020 and semi-finalist in the SPIE startup Challenge 2016 Competition. Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong Government decided to grant yet another year of funding under the Technology Start-up Support Scheme for Universities to the company on top of the grants it received for the academic years 2014/15 and 2015/16.