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CityU Develops Painless Drug Delivery Tech

A research team led by biomedical engineers at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU) has developed a new generation of microneedle patches made of ice that melt after the pain-free delivery of drugs.

Experiments using this ground-breaking invention on mice with cancers have shown that the animals’ immune responses were much better than those seen in conventional vaccination methods. The technology paves the way for developing an easy-to-use cell therapy and other therapeutics against cancers and other diseases.

Made from a cryogenic solution, these icy microneedles are less than 1mm long and can deliver living mammalian cells into the skin. The device is like a skin patch and the microneedles can detach from the patch base, melt and then penetrate the skin.

The research is led by Dr Xu Chenjie, Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), and the findings were published in Nature Biomedical Engineering under the title “Cryomicroneedles for Transdermal Cell Delivery”.

Dr Xu explained that traditional cell therapy for skin disorders is invasive, painful, complicated, low-efficient, risks infection, and requires experienced professionals. The ready-to-use device can circumvent complex and redundant procedures during each drug administration. In addition, it can be stored for months in a refrigerator and is easily transported and deployed.

The applications for this device are not limited to the delivery of cells. It can package, store, and deliver any type of bioactive therapeutic agents such as proteins, peptides, mRNA, DNA, bacterial, and vaccines, and it can improve both the therapeutic efficacy and patient compliance during cell therapies.

As a proof-of-concept, the researchers explored cell-based cancer immunotherapy through the intradermal delivery of ovalbumin-pulsed dendritic cells. Experiments showed that vaccination using therapeutic cells through this technology elicited robust antigen-specific immune responses and provided strong protection against tumours in mice.

These results were superior to the therapeutic outcomes of conventional vaccination methods. One of the start-up teams supported by the Seed Fund of HK Tech 300, CityU’s flagship innovation and entrepreneurship programme, is working on transferring the technology into a product and to promote its application.

Dr Chang Hao, a former postdoc in CityU’s BME, is the first author of this study, and Dr Xu is the corresponding author. Other researchers include Professor Wang Dongan and Professor Shi Peng from BME. The research team collaborated with scientists from Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore.

The cell therapy technologies market is projected to reach US$5.6 billion by 2025 from US$2.8 billion in 2020, at a CAGR of 14.4% from 2020 to 2025. The emerging economies such as Australia and China are expected to provide a wide range of growth opportunities for players in the market which is driven by their large and growing populations as well as an increase in the number of clinical trials and investments in the field of personalized medicine in these countries.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is expected to have a minimal or negligible negative impact on the cell therapy technologies market. The rise in the incidences of COVID has led to an increase in the need for an efficient drug or vaccine for COVID, which could help in reducing the severity of the cases.

Cell-based research is an essential step during the manufacturing of vaccines, which can help in the growth of the market.

In the initial months of the outbreak of COVID, disruption in the supply chain had been witnessed, which has delayed the clinical trials. This can negatively impact the market to a certain extent. For instance, biopharmaceutical companies and major players have announced clinical trial delays.


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