NUS spinoff company LuminiCell, which engineers fluorescent bioprobes using innovative technology developed at the University, has been profitable since its set-up in May 2014. The biologically compatible tools available in three colours allow distinct imaging and tracking of biological processes and cells non-invasively.
The start-up co-founded by Professor Liu Bin of NUS Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering leverages her patented work on aggregation-induced emission (AIE) dots. AIE is a phenomenon where fluorescent substances, which are non-emissive in dilute solutions, could be induced to emit intense light in aggregates or clumps. Conventional dyes and inorganic nanomaterials get “quenched” or lose their emission in the aqueous medium of biological systems, so are less ideal for biomarkers.
Collaborating with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Professor Ben Zhong Tang, who discovered AIE, Prof Liu developed water-dispersible fluorescent organic nanomaterials. These emit more light than even the latest quantum dots, which are luminescent inorganic nanoparticles. The exciting discovery motivated both researchers to set up LuminiCell to commercialise the numerous patented technologies they filed. The breakthrough work also won Prof Liu the 2016 President’s Technology Award.
The LuminiCell AIE dots enable easy visualisation and non-invasive imaging of substances for analysis such as tumours, cancer cell markers and biological processes. The probes feature higher sensitivity and accuracy, giving three times longer tracking and over 10 times brighter signal than commercial quantum dots and small molecule dyes when tracking live cells.
Being organic, the AIE dots are safer and data to date shows no detectable toxicity. Besides biomedical and healthcare purposes, the biocompatible tools can also be applied in the environment for water monitoring and heavy metal detection; energy sector for improved organic light-emitting displays; and security for forensics. Users of the products include research laboratories, biotech companies and pharmaceutical organisations.
Prof Liu’s team is presently integrating the AIE’s visual diagnosis with imaging, therapy and signal reporting within a single molecular probe. She expects to develop a complete system — which involves a carrier for cancer cell detection, drug delivery and release, as well as tracking the therapeutic response — within two years.
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