Eye conditions are highly prevalent in Asia, and HKUST is leading the way with alumni gearing up to address needs.
Globally, at least 2.2 billion people have a vision impairment, and of these, at least 1 billion people have a vision impairment that could have been prevented or is yet to be addressed. Asia is home to more than 60% of the world’s population. A range of factors from environment to genetic, means eye diseases are very common for Asians. But for a long time many people have suffered unnecessarily. It is for this reason that some of HKUST’s leading alumni are working hard to improve drug delivery systems and help people in need.
Focus on drug delivery
But what do we mean when we discuss improving drug delivery? The concept has potential to revolutionize the world of medicine, primarily by getting drugs directly to the site where they are needed the most at an optimized dose and time, improving the efficacy of the drug and reducing toxicity. The area has become one of the most active research areas, and part of the drive to develop medicines of the future. For example, COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and BioNTech utilized drug delivery technology to make their mRNA work in the body.
A scientific mission with personal vision
Nowadays there are even more opportunities, so I would urge current students to explore and make the most of it.
Imagine you have a problem with your sight, and the doctor told you that an injection was needed, directly into your eye. How would you feel? Market analysis shows three out of ten patients would be inclined to skip their appointment. Langston Suen (2016 PhD CBME, 2012 MPhil CBME, 2010 BEng CENG) began his journey towards the improvement of drug delivery systems because it was close to his heart. “I started working on drug delivery science, way before I started this company, because my mother got cancer back in 2006. While the target therapy didn’t work, I saw the side effects were much less than traditional chemotherapy, so it inspired me to see how I could lessen the pain of future patients,” says Langston.
Joining a laboratory run by Prof Ying Chau at HKUST as an undergrad, Langston began to focus on using ultrasound to deliver drugs into the eye, rather than using a painful injection. It has been a long journey for Langston, who exemplifies the type of graduate HKUST seeks to develop – smart, tenacious, achieving, and yet very humble.
The Founder and CEO of Opharmic Technology, which has developed its very own non-invasive ultrasound technology for drug delivery, had driven himself to constantly improve and develop his solutions to make topical drug delivery to the eyes less invasive and challenging for patients. Opharmic’s proprietary ultrasound technology allows therapeutics to be delivered non-invasively, boosting convenience and speed while lessening the amount of pain that patients need to go through.
At present the solution is being used to treat retinopathy, which includes diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration. These diseases are not only uncomfortable and impair the vision of patients, but may also cause blindness in serious cases. Intravitreal injection, or where an injection goes through the patient’s eye ball to deliver drugs, is the standard of care for treating retinopathy, but comes with risk, discomfort and side effects, as one could imagine.
Langston started researching ultrasound-assisted diffusion during his PhD degree at HKUST. His pursuit of passion saw him collaborating with the likes of the Hong Kong Eye Hospital, and earned him accolades – Opharmic’s ocular drug delivery device won two special awards and a special jury commendation medal at the 45th International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva.
So how does it work? Ultrasound ocular drug delivery technology goes through the sclera (the white part of the eye) using a compact ocular drug release device featuring ultrasound-assisted diffusion. It slowly delivers the drug from the episclera into a patient’s eye. As the retina is located beneath the sclera, this is the closest way for the drug to reach the retina (the layer of tissue in the back of your eye that senses light and sends images to your brain).
The product completed pre-clinical testing in Hong Kong at the end of 2020, showing that the technology does not damage the eyeball and vision, and is as efficient as conventional intravitreal injection. Another bonus for the team is it can be delivered in a very cost-efficient manner, considering that many medical innovations have proven to be out of reach for all but the ultra-wealthy. The device design is similar to the ear thermometer, and is reusable, with the only consumable being the drug applicator, as it comes in direct contact with the patient. The cost is thus controlled at the same level as a syringe – so the patient only has to pay the doctor’s fee, drug and applicator.
Having graduated from HKUST, Langston joined the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) Incu-Bio Programme. Opharmic recently won the Grand Prize Award and Product Development Award from the Medtech Innovator Asia Pacific Program. But does he feel like a start-up? Looking around Opharmic Technology’s impressive office in Hong Kong Science Park, Langston could appear to be the head of a listed company. “Although we have a hard-working start-up philosophy, we are establishing ourselves as a corporation with big pharma knocking on the door, so I’m glad to see we are helping patients in a real way, and that huge organizations see the potential for other applications,” he says.
At the center of Langston’s rise has been his time at HKUST, where he joined business competitions, represented the University in regional meets, and conducted much of his initial research. “The hardest time was when we first went to market. It was a wake-up call, and even painful, when trying to covert ground-breaking products into commercial applications. But you have to soldier through,” Langston says.
For Langston, some of his happiest times were at HKUST, where he could focus purely on research with comprehensive facilities and hardware at his fingertips 24/7. “Nowadays there are even more opportunities, so I would urge current students to explore and make the most of it,” he says. If students are able to follow in Langston’s footsteps, all while retaining their charm and modesty, HKUST has a bright future indeed.
Arctic Vision is the hot ticket
I love this career, because of how many people have been saved, and how many people can play with their grandchildren because they are able to live in the light.
Eddy Wu (2006 PhD BICH, 2002 BSc BICH) is the Founder and CEO of Arctic Vision, which shares Langston’s vision to deliver medical treatments for millions of Asians who suffer from eye disorders. Inspired by the animals who live in extreme conditions in the Arctic, either with perpetual darkness or daylight, Eddy is driven by unmet medical needs in ophthalmology, and benefitting the wider society. “I love this career, because of how many people have been saved, and how many people can play with their grandchildren, for example; because they are able to live in the light,” says Eddy.
Let’s just rewind this for a second – how does this all fit in with the Arctic? “The animals facing the most challenges with sight are those living in the Arctic. It is in continuous darkness half of the time and in perpetual daylight during the other half. Reindeer, polar bears and arctic foxes must survive and thrive in this environment: But what is interesting is the type of evolutionary advantages these animals have developed to help them see better in such conditions,” Eddy says.
Inspired by nature, ‘Arctic Vision’ implies that such ‘Arctic Vision’ is bringing hope to patients with ophthalmological conditions so that they can see better. It is a mission that needs innovators – not only do more than 2.2 billion people have a vision impairment globally, but contemporary lifestyles and changing dietary habits are laying the gauntlet down even further.
The world is seeing the rise of the likes of diabetic retinopathy, myopia and aging populations that mean issues such as presbyopia, cataracts and macular degeneration are becoming more prevalent among the elderly. Some people place 721 million people in China, or around half the total population, as having uncorrected vision. Even in developed countries, there are issues to contend with; but when one examines the developing world, lack of doctors in remote areas, along with little access to early diagnosis and treatment of eye ailments, pose considerable issues.
Little wonder the likes of Tencent, Morningside, K11, Octagon, Loyal Valley Capital and Nan Fung Group are joining Eddy to fight for this cause. Depending on market sentiment, Arctic Vision may be looking for an initial public offering (IPO) in Hong Kong which features a robust market for Biotech companies seeking to list. “Greater China is our core business focus, but we also are targeting the likes of New Zealand, Australia, Korea and other Asian countries as well. Different markets have different problems and needs, and you can see this just by stepping into different classrooms in universities around the world,” Eddy says.
Eddy’s aim is to collaborate with international companies to deliver or develop novel treatments in China and Asia for a range of ophthalmic conditions. In March 2020, the company signed an agreement with Clearside Biomedical – a Nasdaq-listed American drug company – to license, develop and market ARVN001 in Greater China and South Korea. The drug treats macular edema resulting from uveitis, which is an inflammation of the middle layer of the eye. “Investors in Asia need to understand your business, strategy, and get onboard with what you are trying to do. And on top of this, talent recruitment is a big issue, because what we are doing is completely new, and we need to start things from scratch,” says Eddy.
Eddy was at HKUST for seven years, going all the way from bachelors’ to PhD, and loved the young and energetic university that focused on all around training – Eddy also studied business and politics as well. “This knowledge was the foundation of my entrepreneurship, I had to understand standards outside of Hong Kong, and the competitive situation globally. This helped me in my career, especially at Novartis (where he spent a decade as Medical Director and Head of Health Economics for Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa) with all the colleagues from MIT, Harvard, Cambridge and those elite schools.”
But there are other memories that make him smile. “When I was pursuing my PhD I would be staying in the laboratory for many days in a row until the late hours, and even slept in the laboratory sometimes! It wasn’t fun at the time, but now I look back at it fondly,” Eddy says. He also makes sure to make some time for his hobbies. When he was a hall tutor at HKUST, he was already collecting toys and robots, and people would comment his room looked like a toy store. “Although I live in Shanghai, I have a store space in Hong Kong to store all my robots,” he says with a laugh. Eddy also has a collection of antique cameras, including one that is more than 100 years old.
From the past to the future, what advice would he give to current students? “It’s important to recognize that the world is changing so much, so I strongly advise students not to judge the future based on their current mindset and knowledge. You need to prepare to change, be creative and handle situations actively and not passively,” Eddy says.
From music to medical science
The free and stimulating environment at HKUST allowed me to explore many different faces of myself.
Yu Yu (2014 PhD BIEN, 2008 BSc BIOL) is the Founder of Pleryon Therapeutics, which is a biotech company developing pharmaceuticals based on advanced drug delivery and biomaterials technologies. Their lead pipelines include two programs in ophthalmology, one for age-related macular degeneration and one for dry eye.
HKUST is a major part of Yu’s life that defined both him and his career. “I came to HKUST in 2004 and left in 2017. As of 2021, this is 40 percent of my life. My experience at HKUST defined who I am. Of course, I spent most of my time struggling in the library, at the dorm and in the laboratory to keep up with the high standard of the 'University of Stress and Tension'. But I’m truly grateful for this experience because it helped me to find my true passion in science and gave me a solid academic background that supports my current work,” he says.
At HKUST, Yu was known for his wide range of interests. “The free and stimulating environment at HKUST allowed me to explore many different faces of myself, “ he says. Yu took many courses outside of his field of specialization, from Linguistics, Buddhism, Music Composition to Pre-Qin Classical Chinese Poetry and more. But he is particularly fond of music. He learnt countertenor and tenor voice singing with HKUST music legend Prof Oliver Lo, and performed in many university and local events. For example, he took lead male roles in the first three HKUST Broadway musical productions, and founded HKUST’s first acapella group Lasagna.
Pleryon Therapeutics started when Yu was an undergrad at HKUST in the Department of Biology. The entrepreneur took a course called “Biotechnology and its business opportunities”, with none other than Prof Ying Chau. “I knew nothing about engineering but I needed to take a course in the School of Engineering so I chose the only one at that time that had a ‘bio’ in the name. Because I found that I had good ‘chemistry’ with Prof Chau, I started to work in her lab in 2007,” he laughs. “At that time I knew nothing about drug delivery and biomaterials science, but through the guidance of Prof Chau, I became really passionate about it as I dived deeper into the subject, and decided to pursue a career in this fascinating area. Subsequently I became a PhD student and later a post-doctoral fellow at Prof Chau’s lab.”
Fast forward eight years and Yu won the HKUST-Sino One Million Dollar Entrepreneurship Competition as a post-doctoral fellow in 2015, founding Pleryon Therapeutics with, you guessed it, Prof Ying Chau in 2017. “Prof Chau and I share the belief that, if we developed something that has a potential to help millions of patients, it is our obligation to pursue it despite the difficulties. The immediate issue is how can we survive, but long term is how can we create good products, that is the core, does it solve unmet needs? From a business point of view, developing new technologies has higher risk, but the potential return is huge.” Yu says.
For many, Pleryon Therapeutics is ticking all these boxes and more. For example, they are establishing long-acting drug delivery for wet age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. Patients need monthly injections directly into their eye(s) because the drugs don’t last very long, and this new technology has the potential to make the drug last for at least 6 months. Other projects include a novel dry eye therapeutics, a biomimetic gene delivery platform, and protein mimetic polymer for osteoarthritis.
One of the issues for scientists in general is adapting to the world of business, and this is a challenge that every student at HKUST must face head on. “Entrepreneurship is challenging for scientists like myself because the science world speaks a different language compared to the business world. For example, in science, you need to focus on and talk about very specific problems in great detail in order to solve them. But in the business world, we need a lot of help from different sectors, so we need to be able to describe the big picture and speak ‘human language’ so that people understand and appreciate what you are doing.”
Aside from this, Yu was also the president of HKUST Shaolin Martial Arts Society and learnt Kung Fu for many years with Master Andy Leung, the great-grand pupil of Master Wong Fei Hung.
Was there anything more that Yu could experience at HKUST? “I also met a lady at HKUST who later on became my wife, together we are raising twin boys, probably my best gifts from HKUST,” he says.
So for current students who want to emulate these three superstars, what would Yu advise?
“Even in my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined how much my life would have changed after joining HKUST. My advice is don’t just stick to your dreams, but embrace new opportunities and challenges.” he adds.