Hong Kong biotech start-up claims world first in stem cell treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases

Oper Technology, linked with Baptist University, claims to be the first to successfully harvest stem cells directly from the brain and re-inject the developed neural cells back into a live subject

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2017, 3:23pm

Oper Technology, a Hong Kong biotechnology start-up, has pioneered what it claims is a world first in stem cell treatment that it says could potentially help millions of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

The business was co-founded by Hong Kong Baptist University’s Professor Ken Yung, who specialises in neurobiology and neurological diseases in the university’s biology department.

He and his team has now developed a method of harvesting neural stem cells from the brains of live subjects using specially developed nanoparticles.

The exploration of using stem cells to repair damaged neural cells is not a new concept. Scientists in the US and elsewhere have experimented using stem cells from fat and skin, developing them into neural cells.

But Yung claims his team is the first to successfully harvest stem cells directly from the brain and re-inject the developed neural cells back into a live subject, thereby artificially regenerating any cells which have died off, due to neurological diseases from neural stem cells themselves.

Stem cells have the potential to develop into different types of cells with specialised functions.

The nanoparticles – which are made of a type of iron oxide – work like magnets to attract the stem cells within the brain.

Yung said these can then be developed into more specific neural cells and re-injected into the brain to replace damaged cells caused by diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, where neurons in the patients’ brains progressively die off with time.

He suggests the treatment could benefit almost 100 million patients around the world, who suffer from neurodegenerative diseases, including strokes.

China alone has the largest population of people with dementia, with an estimated 23.3 million now projected to suffer from the condition by 2030, according to the World Health Organisation.

Yung co-founded Oper Technology and serves as its chairman.

The company is being developed under Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks’ Incu-Bio programme, which provides select biotechnology start-ups with laboratory and support services, and ultimately it aims to commercialise its medical technology.

“If you put the [developed] cells in a different environment from where the [stem cells are harvested], there might be [misdirected] growth in an uncontrolled environment,” said Yung.

“We want to use neural cells to repair neural cells, and since the stem cells and re-injected neural cells are from the same micro-environment, there will not be uncontrollable growth.”

The method has proven to be “very successful” when tested on rats, especially in cases of Parkinson’s, according to Yung, who suggested the method could eventually become an “ultimate treatment” for the disease.

Furthermore, the risks of this treatment are similar to what is currently on the market today, he added.

The treatment could also help to treat early-stage Alzheimer’s patients, slowing down or even halting the degeneration process, although Yung acknowledged that its effectiveness in treating terminal stage patients may be limited since it would be difficult to regenerate enough neural cells when patients’ brains have shrunk due to the condition.

While animals subjected to the treatment displayed an improvement in neural function following the re-injection, the team has yet to start on clinical trials as such cell therapy is still nascent and largely unregulated in Hong Kong.

Oper Technology is currently seeking investment and often sets up booths at conferences such as last week’s EmTech Hong Kong conference, which focuses on innovation and emerging technologies.

Yung hopes to raise enough funds to begin clinical trials in Australia in the near future, where autologous cell therapies are legal and thus provides an ideal environment for clinical trials.