Top-notch scientists created healthy impact

Oct 28, 2021


Advanced Biomedical Instrumentation Centre is a major collaborative effort between HKU and Harvard SEAS to translate advanced biomedical instrumentation into real-world healthcare solutions that benefit people in Hong Kong and around the world.


While tackling healthcare-related challenges, a major collaborative effort between The University of Hong Kong (HKU) scientists and those at Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (Harvard SEAS) is set to create significant global impact.

The scientists are drawn together by the newly set-up Advanced Biomedical Instrumentation Centre, which is located at the Hong Kong Science Park.

Four professors from HKU’s Faculty of Engineering – Professor Anderson H.C. Shum, who is the Centre Director and also Associate Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Professor Barbara P. Chan and Dr. Paddy K.L. Chan, both from the same department, and Professor Kenneth K.Y. Wong from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering; and also two professors from Harvard SEAS - Dr. Fawwaz Habbal, who is the Centre Co-Director and also the Executive Dean for Education and Research in Harvard SEAS, and Professor David Weitz, who is the Director of Innovation and also the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics in Harvard SEAS, are leading four research programmes that can shape the way health services are delivered.

As part of the Hong Kong Government’s InnoHK initiative, the programmes involve developing affordable, very rapid, highly sensitive and easily scalable testing kits for COVID-19 and other emerging pandemic viruses, serving one of the greatest current needs worldwide. They will facilitate widespread screening for early disease detection.


Diverse research efforts


Professor Anderson Shum, one of the leading researchers of the Centre, has much expectations for the further contributions the joint research efforts can make.


Other areas of research include personalised companion diagnostics, which can develop new insights into disease causation to enable personalised treatments; strategic therapeutic approaches with the aim of enabling new treatments that require new delivery strategies; and advanced medical service components, which enhance automated and cutting-edge medical devices for disease management that require advanced components.

Once the travel restrictions imposed due to the pandemic are removed, top-notch engineers, scientists and clinicians from HKU and Harvard SEAS can be expected to meet up more for exchanges. The rich ties already established between some of them have laid a strong foundation for the partnership.

Professor Shum, who obtained his doctorate from Harvard, has much expectations for the further contributions the joint research efforts can make.  “They will facilitate design of devices and treatments that will impact healthcare in Asia and worldwide, as well as leverage Hong Kong’s strategic location in the Greater Bay Area with its unique industrial scene and opportunities to develop and commercialise our research and development (R&D) efforts,” he said.

HKU has a long, well-established tradition of doing upstream basic research, but in view of the rising challenges in today’s world, such as the pandemic and an aging population, there is no better time to step up commercialization of research output.

“HKU may not be best known for translating technology into products. It is the same for the whole of Hong Kong. But we have much developed basic understanding of new approaches waiting to be translated into implementation. Pushing the trend towards instrumentation is something that is timely for the university and Hong Kong. That is the only way to realise impact,” Professor Shum added.

Dr. Fawwaz Habbal expressed that “Through the collaboration between the University of Hong Kong and Harvard SEAS, engineers and scientists will create significant innovation and discoveries that will impact the direction of precision medicine.  Our guiding principles are interdisciplinary orientation and focus on societal challenges.  These will enable the creation of new directions to energize biomedical instrumentation, and will promote knowledge transfer”.

Practical Moves

The Centre is entrusted to translate advanced biomedical instrumentation into real-world healthcare solutions that benefit people in Hong Kong and around the world.

Instrumentation refers to the process of turning otherwise manual integration of multiple steps into machines with automated procedures. Professor Shum says: “It’s very important to develop some biomedical instrumentation rather than concepts in a laboratory. This is a vison shared by our collaborators at Harvard SEAS. On the one hand, they want to pioneer some technology in the area, while on the other side we enjoy closer proximity to some of the manufacturing and translation capabilities in this region. Together we can potentially have more fruitful synergy.”

Professor Shum’s own research in microfluidics has resulted in multiple useful devices. Through instrumentation as opposed to having disconnected devices, there can be marked improvement in application values, such as by enabling more accurate diagnoses, effective treatments, and earlier intervention and prevention capabilities.

The Centre can benefit from the large pool of talents, investors and the growing number of start-ups here which are keen to bring high-end technology to the market. “If there are large corporations and existing start-ups that can utilize some of the technologies we develop at the Centre to take them to the next stage, we welcome that,” said Professor Shum.

“Our goal is to maximise the impact of our research and have our technology reach potential end users, be it industrial companies, consumers or other practitioners,” he added. “Hopefully the Centre can connect investors, industries, existing companies including large corporations and start-ups; when people think of something they want to do, they will think of our Centre and explore potential commercialisation and translation opportunities.”

Prof. David A. Weitz expects the Centre to make major contributions in developing low-cost instrumentation that ensures the science and engineering performed in the Centre will truly benefit society and will impact more patients within the community. “Our Centre has strategically chosen research themes that can lead to translation of first-rate science to benefit society.  For example, the use of microfluidics technologies to develop biomedical instruments can be applied to medical diagnosis, drug delivery, and analytical sensors.  These will have direct impact on patients and on the community.”

Input from scientists with different backgrounds

Professor Barbara P. Chan, who received her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School and whose research interests include biomaterials, tissue engineering, multiphoton microfabrication and micropatterning, stresses the value of multidisciplinary collaboration characterizing the lab’s operations. “Even though we emphasize technology and engineering, nowadays you have to work with investigators from various faculties including those from medicine, science etc. to find solutions for complex problems such as what we are facing in the biomedical field,” she said.

For Dr. Paddy K.L. Chan, his attention is on minimal invasive surgical tools which can be put inside the body, particularly the brain, for treating brain-related diseases like epilepsy. By tracking how the brain responds, through picking up neuro-signals under the impact of external stimulation like light, voltage and heat to the neurons, new diagnostic, therapeutic options could be discovered, he said. Another area of focus for him is health monitoring devices, such as sensors put on one’s arm to check the chemical composition of a patient’s sweat for an analysis of his health condition. Dr. Chan is highly hopeful about the Centre’s work, including the input from researchers of different backgrounds. “A number of us are working on medical devices, diagnostics, etc., and I am involved more in the fabrication of devices, which involves a lot of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering backgrounds.”

Students with the above and other related backgrounds can join the Centre to help and be inspired.

Indeed, another objective of the Centre is to nurture upcoming scientists through exposure to the collaborative efforts with overseas scientists. They can see the best of both worlds – both the local relevance of research projects and some of the pioneering work of the overseas collaborators.

Broadening Experience

Undergraduate, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows can enrich their experiences working among researchers in a technology-infused environment. Professor Kenneth K.Y. Wong, who also serves as an external assessor for the Incu-Bio programme at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park (HKSTP), calls the Centre an extension of the HKU campus. “Students can have access to facilities at the Science Park, and mingle with staff from their ‘start-up’ neighbours. It is a unique opportunity that can broaden their perspectives.”

Professor Wong’s team will seek to develop affordable testing for various diseases including COVID-19. “We hope we can have samples tested in an ultrafast manner,” he said. “The current technology used is rather expensive. We want to create low-cost diagnostics.”

In the Centre in the future, students will see for themselves the hard work made in translating academic research into marketable products or instruments. That is also what the professors are keen to achieve for Hong Kong and beyond. They know full well that the efforts of engineers alone cannot meet the vast needs in different societies.

“Being from the engineering faculty, a lot of our natural instincts are to focus on creating new functions, materials, or ways to process fluids, integrate optics into our devices etc., all of which lead to new capability,” said Professor Shum. “But we also need inspirations from people like clinicians, medical researchers who can tell us what kind of needs they have, how some of the new technologies we have developed can facilitate their work.”

Equally important is that whatever is produced, they need to be user-friendly, and robust under different situations. “What are required are not necessarily techniques we focus on a lot when we work in an academic lab, but other input needed to create impactful instruments.”

SEAS-HKU Mou 2018

The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Hong Kong and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2018 to establish a joint research laboratory in Hong Kong.