Fight Covid-19: How innovative Hong Kong biotech companies aim to help people battle coronavirus disease.
The rapid global spread of the deadly coronavirus disease, Covid-19, has shown how important it is to have quick and accurate health diagnoses.
Countries such as South Korea and Iceland, which have made testing widely available to their populations, have been able to contain the virus more effectively.
Scientists are working hard to develop new tests that can produce a result within minutes, instead of the many hours or days they can currently take.
Shortening the waiting time for diagnoses will help save many lives and cut the huge daily workload that staff in laboratories faced even before the outbreak of Covid-19.
Sanwa BioTech’s medical diagnostic platform for respiratory diseases, including Covid-19, offers medical professionals the accurate analysis of nose swabs within 15 minutes, rather than the usual half a day or more.
“The ‘competition window’ for us has always been 30 minutes in terms of testing,” Kelvin Chiu, CEO of Sanwa, says.
Kelvin Chiu, CEO of Sanwa BioTech, has developed a rapid, portable and accurate diagnostic solution to help medical professionals monitor and control diseases. Photo: Norm Yip
The concept of diagnostics will become increasingly important as the focus of health care shifts from treatment to prevention.
“Preventive health is becoming a hot topic now,” says Vince Gao, founder and CEO of the health assessment company, Govita Tech.
“It focuses more on the future, how you prepare your body for its natural maturation and prolong the time it works well.”
Govita and Sanwa – both biotech companies based at Hong Kong Science Park, in Pak Shek Kok, New Territories, run by Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) – hope their innovations will help people battle the deadly coronavirus disease and improve the general health.
The two companies’ work will ensure medical professionals accurately identify diseases.
The average waiting time to see a doctor in an accident and emergency department (A&E) at one of Hong Kong’s public hospitals is generally one hour, but during last year’s peak flu season it took up to eight hours, Hospital Authority data shows.
The current coronavirus pandemic has added to the huge burden on A&E doctors and nurses worldwide.
Industrialist William Yim, Sanwa’s executive chairman, and genetic engineer Chiu launched their company in 2012.
They have spent the intervening years researching and developing a point-of-care test that offers medical professionals a rapid, portable, accurate and effective diagnostic solution to monitor and control diseases.
The company’s ALiA diagnostic platform – short for Array-Based LED-induced fluorescence Immunoassay – can diagnose specific medical conditions, such as respiratory or tropical diseases, in only 15 minutes. It assesses a droplet from a nose swab or blood sample placed on a small chip.
Such a rapid diagnosis ensures doctors or disease control organisations can respond by making swift and effective health care decisions.
Chiu says the platform can carry out four- or five-panel tests for diseases. For example, in the case of a respiratory disease, a four-panel test could search for the presence of influenza A, influenza B, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and adenovirus.
Sanwa already has its ALiA for respiratory diseases undergoing clinical validation at Hong Kong’s Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin and a local university, and it hopes its new test platform will be ready for use by medical professionals within three months.
Sanwa BioTech, a company based at Hong Kong Science Park, hopes its new portable diagnostic test platform will be used within a few months to help people facing the coronavirus. Photo: Norm Yip
“I came up with the idea after a bad experience when my children were sick at a hospital in Los Angeles,” Chiu says.
“Even though both my wife and I worked in hospitals, it took hours to see a doctor and even longer to find out what was going on. It was really stressful for us.”
The ALiA diagnostic platform’s hardware features a 5kg (11lbs) machine, about the size of a rice cooker, which uses a touch screen interface. Chiu says that the platform can analyse a sample with an accuracy of between 95 and 100 per cent.
“A doctor or nurse could do a three-second nose swab, put it in a solution for about 30 seconds, load the sample onto a disposable biochip, press start and in 15 minutes the result would come out,” he says.
“Imagine technicians running in the lab and doing different experiments, switching to different machines and handling samples … now we cram all that into a credit-card-size cartridge and do automated testing all inside the chip without human interventions.”
Sanwa BioTech’s portable, easy-to-use ALiA diagnostic platform can diagnose specific medical conditions, such as respiratory or tropical diseases, from a nose swab or blood sample in only 15 minutes. Photo: Norm Yip
The coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted how often we react to health issues – seeking a doctor only when there is an illness – rather than focusing on prevention.
Although Covid-19 is a new disease, other common medical conditions can be caught before the onset. That is the reason Govita is looking to help people determine their overall health condition through personalised screenings using biomarkers – naturally occurring molecules, genes, or characteristics which can be used to identify particular diseases.
Gao launched Govita in 2016 after becoming frustrated by seeing his friends and relatives suffer from chronic diseases, such as stroke and cancer, which he felt were preventable.
Vince Gao, founder and CEO of Govita Tech, launched his health assessment company in 2016. Photo: Norm Yip
The Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department’s 2015 report on “persons affected by disabilities and chronic diseases in Hong Kong”, based on 2013 figures, estimated there were 1,375,200 people with chronic diseases in the city – up from 1,152,700 in 2007 – with the situation likely to have worsened.
The most commonly mentioned diseases were hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.
It is widely recommended by medical professionals that men aged 40 and over should monitor their blood pressure every year, and cholesterol levels every five years. For those aged 45 and over, a diabetes screening is recommended every three years.
For women, the chances of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and a thyroid condition also increase significantly after the age of 40.
Gao aims to go beyond these general guidelines by leveraging technology to map out each individual’s health road map.
“I thought if we could do a test earlier and it prevents diseases before [they are] happening, that would be good for everybody to [help them] live healthier, longer and happier [lives]," he says.
“By combining [your] genetics, or what we call genotype, with your phenotype (a person’s observable characteristics resulting from their genotype’s interaction with the environment), we can use all that information to come up with a personalised intervention programme.”
Gao’s company combines genetic testing metabolic biochemistry and artificial intelligence (AI) to assess his clients’ health in six areas – their immunity, mental state, cardiovascular fitness, body composition, hormones and whether they are at risk of developing cancer.
He says his company helps doctors to precisely treat their patients and people who wish to find out if they have underlying health issues.
This is done via a complete body check, which includes determining a person's genetic, metabolic, biochemical biomarkers and a questionnaire that records additional relevant health information.
AI analyses the data to assess 300 biomarkers, with the findings recorded in a comprehensive personal report – including a diet, supplement and exercise plan – which aims to help improve the client's health.
“Studies have shown that you can reverse age for two and a half years with a one-year treatment,” Gao says.
Govita Tech, based at Hong Kong Science Park, provides clients with comprehensive and personalised reports, which include diet, supplement and exercise plans, to help improve their health. Photo: Norm Yip
Gao says the pandemic will help to convince the public that preventive medicine can offer substantial health benefits.
“With this coronavirus outbreak, I think more and more people realise that if they don't have good immunity they definitely will be susceptible to [catching] some [form of] virus,” he says.
“So this is a very good opportunity for people to ‘wake up’ and say, ‘Look, even though I am young, even though there’s no sign of a [medical] condition, I can make sure I am healthy and strong’.”
Govita also has a research and development arm specialising in nutraceuticals, a field that looks at developing products derived from food sources believed to offer extra health benefits to complement a person’s normal diet. Its specially formulated nutraceutical Dexla softgel can help boost immunity.
“With our programme you can definitely improve a person's quality of life and reduce the risk of people getting diseases,” Gao says. Govita’s technology can also be applied to newborns, children and even pets.
The company is providing its technologies to several Hong Kong clinics, health care providers and health clubs to improve preventive health care practices through more comprehensive and integrated testing, combined with personalised interventions.
Sanwa BioTech's engineering laboratory. Photo: Norm Yip
Chiu says the work of biotech companies and start-ups at Hong Kong Science Park shows the city’s important role in making hi-tech advances, which are helping to improve the lives of people around the world.
“It's a transformation for Hong Kong,” he says. “We want to break the stigma [facing] the city and, to some extent, Asia … which are usually or traditionally [regarded as being] on the passive end of medical or biotechnology innovation.
“[Yet] it’s a field [offering huge potential] where the demand far outstrips the supply.”