Cutting-edge stem cell system earns top accolade

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 January, 2009, 12:00am

Grand Award

Machinery and Machine Tools

Automatic Manufacturing

Anyone who doubts Hong Kong's ability to come up with cutting-edge scientific innovation needs only consider the work that won Automatic Manufacturing the grand award for machinery and machine tools design in the Hong Kong Awards for Industries. In collaboration with London-based NovaThera, it designed and developed the NovaPod system, which enables the large-scale reproduction of stem cells for regenerative medical therapies, through its wholly owned subsidiary MediHealth.

'Our role was to do the mechanical and electronic hardware and the software design, while our partner did the biological research,' said John Mok, chairman and co-founder. 'We have applied for worldwide patents, and the target customers will be hospitals, research laboratories and pharmaceutical companies around the world who need to test the effectiveness of different treatments.'

Mr Mok described the NovaPod as a bioreactor able to culture stem cells in three dimensions. Essentially, one master unit controls four cartridges which have 'independent parameter settings and asynchronous operations'. Each cartridge or dish can rotate separately and at different speeds. There is also an auto resealing septa that helps with real-time sampling and the injection of nutrients, chemicals and different reagents necessary for particular types of experiments.

Advanced electronic controls enable precise monitoring of the conditions in each cartridge and help to regulate the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide via a membrane. This keeps gases at 'natural' levels and prevents the culture from becoming too acidic.

The electronic components extend to having an audible alarm, an error notification system, and a clear record of the variables introduced during each experiment. In this way, the process is controllable and more easily repeatable. 'With our system, cells live in a dynamic environment and the rotating motion mimics the movement in a real biological system,' Mr Mok said.

This gives a closer duplication of human development and overcomes many of the difficulties associated with reproducing stems cells in a standard flask or petri dish - the 'two-dimensional' method. In that static setting, since nutrients are used up and waste gases are not released, it is necessary to transfer developing cells to new culture every few days. Doing so increases the risks of contamination, damage and failure.

Mr Mok explained that the basic source for stem cells would still be the umbilical cord, bone marrow, fat tissue or blood.

The NovaPod, though, can multiply the chances of successful reproduction, thereby reducing the need to take repeat samples from any individual.

Scientists and researchers will be able to put stem cells in slightly different environments and stimulate them in different ways, making their work faster and easier. There will be immediate benefits for the study of diseases and drug testing since it will be possible to work on experimental cures and medical treatments 'externally', rather than directly on the patient.

Mr Mok said that once the partners involved had completed the initial discussions the design, tooling and pilot production for the project had taken only about six months.

'Winning the award is good recognition for all the contributions - biological, electronic and mechanical. It will also encourage international collaboration on hi-tech medical devices.'