Start it Up with TSSSU@HKU: Matters of the Heart
Here's a golden opportunity for the entrepreneurial-minded to translate their new technologies and inventions into business opportunities. TSSSU@HKU is a new award programme with an annual budget of HK$4 million, and the HKU edition of the Technology Start-up Support Scheme for Universities (TSSSU) launched by the Innovation and Technology Commission in October 2014. It provides funding support to technology startup companies formed by HKU students, staff and alumni.
Professor Ronald Li, Founding Director of the Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Consortium at HKU, created the world's first genetically engineered human heart cells and the first "mini-heart" grown in the lab. These inventions are amazing in themselves but he has also been engaged in translating his inventions into products that can be used by industry and others.
His start-up, NovoHeart, is a global stem cell biotechnology company that aims to revolutionise drug discovery, reduce patient harm and pioneer next-generation cardiac tissue engineering.
Drug discovery may seem an unexpected target for heart-focused research, but cardiotoxicity is a major reason why all kinds of drug trials fail, including cancer drug trials.
"Our inventions can test drugs far more quickly and without harm to patients," Professor Li said.
The drugs are applied directly to the human heart cells, heart "sheets" of cells, muscle fibres or 3-D mini-hearts that Professor Li has developed with his team, which includes collaborators in the US. Many drug compounds can be tested simultaneously.
"Before, drug trials had to look at one drug at a time, a process that can take years and cost up to US$1 billion or more. With synthesised cells and organs, we can now screen 10s of 10,000s of compounds at a time and get rapid feedback.
"If a drug is not working, or alternatively if it is enhancing cardio function, we want to know as early as possible."
His constructs have been developed with funding from the Theme-based Research Scheme, Innovation and Technology Fund and TSSSU@HKU, and support from the Hong Kong Science Park and HKU's Technology Transfer Office.
NovoHeart has also signed a strategic partnership with Pfizer that will take its technology to the next stage, and continue to involve the researchers. "This is not like a cooking recipe that can be re-produced. It also involves know-how, so we will have to stay involved," he said.
The company will also work on developing its constructs into treatments for patients. A transplantable heart from the lab could be developed within the next few years. Patients could also benefit from synthetic "patches" that repair heart damage at an early stage. All of these could be personalised from a simple draw of five millilitres of blood – which, in fact, was the starting point of his mini-heart.
"With what we and our colleagues around the world are doing, there are going to be even more promising developments over the next three years. But the first step is this revolution in drug discovery."