Novoheart Holdings, the inventor of artificial “mini-hearts” co-founded by a Hong Kong scientist, is expanding its research and manufacturing budget in the region to commercialise a technology that can speed up drug discovery process.
The Canada-listed firm sees Hong Kong as part of its global efforts to access a deep pool of talents and markets, co-founder and chief executive officer Ronald Li said. Including new facilities in Wuxi in mainland China’s southern Jiangsu province, and in eastern US, its spending will exceed HK$200 million (US$25.8 million), he added.
“It is not uncommon for early- to mid-stage biotechnology firms to have multiple sites, to recruit the right people,” Li said in an interview. “We are expanding despite the global economic uncertainties, because our technology is ready for commercialisation.”
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A presence in Hong Kong could be a springboard for the firm to get nearer to the world’s largest market. China’s pharmaceutical market increased from US$194.3 billion in 2015 to US$236.3 billion in 2019, according to Frost & Sullivan. The size is forecast to reach US$322.6 billion in 2024, it said.
Novoheart opened a 16,000-sq ft laboratory and office in Kwun Tong last week, which will focus on heart tissues engineering. It plans to expand its facilities at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park in Pak Shek Kok to be able to produce “clinical-grade” materials that can be used on patients.
“A major advantage of Hong Kong is that if we want to focus on certain diseases prevalent among Asians, we can access Chinese patient materials easily here,” said Li, who co-founded the venture in 2015.
He was part of several research groups that successfully stemmed cell technology to make genetically-engineered human heart cells two decades ago. It took 13 years for Li and his partners to turn it into the world’s first “mini-hearts” that can contract and mimic the fluid-pumping action of a natural heart.
Li is in the process of taking Novoheart private in a deal that values Novoheart at C$100 million (US$ /HK$). Li did not rule out possibilities of tapping into Hong Kong’s capital market to help fund its development and expansion in the region.
“We are still the only company that has commercialised this technology,” said Li, a former assistant professor of cardiology, and cellular and molecular medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
“We can make healthy hearts of any ethnic group, as well as sick hearts that carry certain disease mutations,” Li said. “In addition to safety, we can look at efficacy and screen new drug candidates to see if they can improve the disease state.”
The technology behind “mini hearts” has the potential to shrink drug discovery time from current two to eight years to between one and two years, he said. This can cut drug development cost, as well as improve the current success rate of around 5 per cent, he added.
At the same time, the company also wants to bridge the gap between animals [used in clinical trials] and humans, by collecting data for drug safety and efficacy screening without involving human patients, it said.
Novoheart is seeking to form discovery partnerships with drug companies instead of pursuing growth by merely being a service provider to own a good portfolio of drug candidates in future.
The firm is working with Hong Kong’s Queen Mary Hospital to study a number of congenital heart diseases prevalent in the Chinese population, and with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca on a drugs screening model for a type of heart failure common among elderly women.
Novoheart has also worked with Pfizer to develop a human cardiac tissue model for Friedreich’s ataxia, a rare neuromuscular degenerative disease, which can cause lethal heart complications.
More from South China Morning Post:
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- Hong Kong could become a hub for genetics-based drugs discovery. Just one hitch – would Beijing stand in way?
- Can AI speed up a cure for coronavirus? This Hong Kong start-up opens its resources to global drug firms for free
- Billionaire Li Ka-shing’s biotech unit hopes for new cancer drug approvals, expands sales army in China amid stock rally in London
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