Elderly patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease could one day benefit from only having to take their medication once a day instead of three times daily.

Scientists from Nanyang Technology University (NTU) and SingHealth have developed a pill that contains the same cocktail of three standard drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease which can release the medication slowly over a 24-hour period, benefitting both patients and caregivers.

Developed by NTU’s Assoc Prof Joachim Loo from the School of Materials Science and Engineering, the new technology, which uses a patented micro-encapsulation process, is now being tested in animal models at the laboratory of Assoc Prof Lim Kah Leong from the National Neuroscience Institute.

To encourage similar collaborations that will generate more patient care innovations, NTU and SingHealth announced a new five-year research tie-up today.

The first joint research grant call worth S$2 million, which will fund six joint research projects of up to S$300,000 each, was also announced.

The funds will enable NTU scientists and SingHealth clinicians to develop practical healthcare solutions, such as biomedical devices, novel drugs and new treatment methods to prevent, diagnose or treat diseases.

Prof Ivy Ng, Group CEO of SingHealth said, “The NTU-SingHealth partnership is highly complementary and will facilitate research from bench to bedside more seamlessly.

“Our clinicians can highlight areas in clinical care that could potentially be improved to the attention of engineers and scientists. Each brings their unique expertise to the research team and ultimately, we hope working together will produce tangible outcomes that benefit patients.”

NTU President Prof Bertil Andersson said the partnership taps on the deep engineering and life sciences expertise at NTU, including new life sciences techniques used in emerging research areas like phenomics and genomics at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

“NTU has a track record of working with hospitals to do research that will benefit patients, and today’s partnership with SingHealth is an expansion of our previous successful collaboration.

“Already, some of our research breakthroughs are being tested with our partners in SingHealth, such as time-release nanodrugs that eliminate the need for daily eye drops for glaucoma patients and drug-eluting stents that can prevent blood clots while delivering medicine to the necessary parts of the body.”

Taking healthcare solutions to the next level

The joint grant-call projects will focus on nationally-relevant diseases. It will cover several key clinical areas, which include ageing, diabetes, eye diseases, infectious diseases, skin and plastic surgery, and medical technology.

The plan is to initiate more collaborative research projects that will result in a new range of products, medications, systems and equipment, adding to those currently being developed by NTU and SingHealth.

One of the existing joint projects is to make corneal transplants safer and easier to perform through the development of a new surgical tool. The tool, which is in the prototype phase, is built by scientists from NTU’s School of Materials Science and Engineering together with clinicians from the Singapore National Eye Centre.

The new surgical tool can produce vibrations in its blade, which allows for more accurate, smoother and safer removal of thin layers of cornea compared to current devices on the market.  If successfully commercialised, it would mean that eye surgeons will perform corneal transplants more easily while patients can look forward to shorter recovery time.

Another ongoing joint project aims to help heart surgeons plan for cardiac surgeries with the use of a 3D virtual reality model of patients’ hearts. The project group involving NTU’s Institute of Media Innovation and the National Heart Centre Singapore is now looking to set up a laboratory where realistic virtual heart models can be used for cardiac surgical planning, as well as doctors’ training. 


Nanomedicine for treatment of Parkinson’s disease

NTU’s Assoc Prof Joachim Loo from the School of Materials Science and Engineering and Assoc Prof Lim Kah Leong from the National Neuroscience Institute are developing a new nanomedicine for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that causes a person to lose control of motor movements, such as the ability to move his or her hands, arms, and legs.

Parkinson’s disease is one of the most common neurodegenerative conditions in Singapore. It affects three out of every 1,000 persons aged 50 years and above. With an ageing population in Singapore, cases of neurodegenerative diseases are set to rise.

Currently, there is no cure or treatment which can slow down or stop Parkinson’s disease, which affects an estimated 10 million people worldwide.

The nanomedicine is made by loading the same cocktail of three standard drugs, used to treat Parkinson’s disease – levodopa (LD), carbidopa (CD) and entacapone (ENT) – into extremely small hollow oil-based capsules composed of poly-L-lactide (PLLA) and poly (caprolactone). LD and CD drugs are contained inside the capsule while the ENT is on the surface of the capsule.

These microcapsules can then be made into a pill which will slowly release the drugs in small amounts over 24 to 48 hours after being orally ingested by the patient.

Such a timed-released delivery system could provide similar, if not better, pharmaceutical benefits compared to the conventional treatment, which usually requires the patients to take a few pills several times a day.

With this new invention, a lower dosage of drugs could be used, leading to fewer side effects for the patient.

Prototype device for partial corneal removal

In a bid to make corneal transplants safer and easier to perform, a new cutting tool is being developed.

Currently in its prototype phase, the tool is built by NTU Provost Prof Freddy Boey and Dr Goh Chin Foo from NTU’s School of Materials Science and Engineering together with Assoc Prof Jodhbir Singh Mehtaof the Singapore National Eye Centre, and Prof Donald Tan, SingHealth Duke-NUS Arthur Lim Professor of Ophthalmology.

The cornea is a multi-layered transparent tissue located in the front part of the eye. When a patient’s vision is affected, due to corneal disorders like infections, corneal injuries and degenerative diseases, a corneal transplant is one way to restore normal vision.

Traditionally, a corneal transplant procedure would be to remove the full-thickness of the cornea, followed by a transplantation of a new corneal tissue. However, this procedure has a high incidence of transplant rejection, which would cause even further distress to the patient.

To improve surgical outcomes, eye surgeons have recently adopted partial removal of the corneal upper layers, which leaves the lower layers intact. However when a conventional sharp blade or laser cutter is used to remove the upper layers, it may cause damage to the lower layer of the cornea.

To overcome this, the new piezo-electric cutting tool produces vibrations in its blunt blade, which can split and separate a specific layer of the cornea as desired. This allows for more accurate, smoother and safer removal of thin layers of cornea compared to current devices on the market.

It will also be lower is cost as compared to laser cutting tools and the blades can be made disposable for hygiene purposes. If successfully commercialised, it would mean that eye surgeons will have an easier time performing corneal transplants while patients can look forward to shorter recovery time.

Virtual reality for cardiac treatment planning and doctors’ training

SingHealth’s National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS) and Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU’s) Institute for Media Innovation (IMI) are using virtual reality technology to develop a 3D virtual model of the human heart for cardiac treatment planning, as well as training of cardiologists and cardiac surgeons.

Through technology, virtual reality simulates actual environments and creates corresponding sensory experiences such as sight, touch or hearing for users. Its use is especially relevant for healthcare as it allows healthcare professionals to replicate disease scenarios or clinical environments for patient care planning or training purposes without putting real patients at risk.

Co-developed by Director of NTU’s IMI Prof Nadia Thalmann and NHCS Staff Research Scientist Dr Zhong Liang, this 3D virtual heart model or “virtual heart”, would be computer-driven and is customisable to individual patients. It would incorporate virtual reality technology, cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as well as computational modelling methods to realistically simulate a physical heart.

This Virtual Heart” can be used for –

• Patients’ cardiac care planning: Prior to important heart surgeries or treatments such as coronary artery pass surgeries, or coronary or structural interventions, doctors can scrutinise a patient’s “virtual heart” to simulate and plan treatment delivery. The “virtual heart” would be able to predict and model potential treatment outcomes, thus serving to inform doctors on optimum treatment delivery methods, and what should or should not be done.

• Training of cardiac doctors and surgeons: Its ability to replicate cardiac conditions and treatments would also make the “virtual heart” an effective tool for doctors’ training. Cardiac physicians and surgeons would be able practise their knowledge and skills on a ‘life-like’ heart model and in a ‘realistic’ clinical environment, yet in a safe and controlled setting without putting actual patients at risk.

The 3D “virtual heart” technology’s development brings together NHCS’ expertise in clinical care for cardiovascular disease and in cardiovascular research, as well as IMI’s strengths in research and development for virtual reality.

Drug releasing stent to prevent ureter blockage

In humans, the kidney is the organ where waste and toxins are filtered out of the blood and combined with water to become urine.

The ducts from the kidneys to the bladder which urine passes through, known as ureters, can often be blocked. There are several causes, which includes cancer, kidney stones and surgical procedures.

Current treatment involves putting a metal stent, which opens up the duct similar to how an umbrella opens, but this often leads to re-blockage by the growth of scar tissue due to the constant abrasion between the stent and the vessel wall.

To solve this issue, Prof Subbu Venkatraman, Chair of NTU’s School of Materials Science and his collaborator, Dr Tsong Chung Wen, Senior Consultant from the Department of Urology at Singapore General Hospital, have developed an innovative hydrogel coating for the stent.

This hydrogel coating is made of up nanoparticles containing anti-fibrotic drugs, which will be delivered to the vessel wall to prevent a re-blockage from happening. This solution is low-cost, simple to implement and can be readily incorporated into current medical practices.

This invention is now being tested in labs and animal models by the joint research team.