Research professor seeks to combat the process of aging

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 2006, 12:00am

Researchers at the front line

ZHOU ZHONGJUN EPITOMISES a new generation of young scientists enchanted with top-notch research.

In 2003 the native of Dalian in northeast China left Sweden, where he obtained his second doctoral degree, for an academic post at the University of Hong Kong's biochemistry department as research assistant professor. The change of location also brought a shift in his focus of research - from cancer to premature aging.

Less than two years later, a ground-breaking discovery achieved by Dr Zhou and his fellow collaborators was published in the leading science journal Nature. Dr Zhou was senior author of the article highlighting their findings about the gene mutation mechanism that accelerates Hutchinson-Gilford progerial syndrome, a severe form of early-onset premature aging.

He takes pride in the short period of time it took for the team to arrive at the results. 'In science, you always have to be the first one,' he said.

The pressure that comes from the intense competition on the global scene has not held him back. 'It boils down to interest; I have interest in doing science, and I want to make contributions to this field, to do things that nobody has done before.'

After failing to get into his dream choice, Beijing Medical University, upon finishing high school, he headed south at the age of 17 to enrol in Xiamen University, in 1983. A year later he switched his major from mathematics to biochemistry, knowing little about what the latter entailed. The reason he made the change was because of his interest in the human body and life sciences.

Later he pursued a doctoral degree at the Chinese Academy of Medical Science in Beijing. It was only when he pursued his post-doctoral studies in Sweden with a fellowship from the Swiss Cancer Foundation that he discovered what he liked to do most.

'When I was in China, I knew I wanted to do science but sometimes you did not really know the direction. Basically you just followed what everybody was doing; everybody got their degree and went to America. That is what people normally do especially in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.'

Like his peers then, he got offers from American institutions too but finally he decided to venture on a lesser-known path, taking on the advice of a friend who had studied at the Karolinska Institute.

It was there that he started to enjoy research, he said. He cloned breast cancer genes and studied genetics through mice - mouse genetics was considered very advanced technology in the 1990s. 'You can take a particular gene from a mouse and study its function. If a mouse is sick, it can lead to understanding about human disorder,' Dr Zhou said.

At the internationally-acclaimed institute, he realised he had made the right choice. 'The level of research was different; the level of training we had in China was kind of low, back in the mid-90s. Lots of the research done was just repeating other people's works. In China, there was not enough funding or experience; everything in molecular biology was new to us,' said Dr Zhou, adding: 'But since a couple of years ago, things have changed a lot. Many people have come back from the States, Europe, bringing in new ideas and technology.'

The international team at the Swedish institute - comprising scientists from countries including Finland, Sweden, Japan and Bulgaria - provided rapport and other much-needed input. 'It was a very good time for me to get to know not only science but also people, how we can collaborate to do things,' Dr Zhou said.

In Hong Kong, he enjoys the same supportive environment. Promoted to associate professor in a short period of time, he is encouraged by HKU's recognition of young scientists' contributions.

He plans to stay in the city for at least a few more years, using his mice models to achieve further breakthroughs. 'You don't want to lose time, half year or one year, because one year for us means a lot,' he said.

Even the central government's injection of massive funds into key universities has not shaken his decision to stay. 'Money is, of course, important for research. But the other thing equally important is human resources. You need to get good people to work on a project. People can make a huge difference. In China, at that level it's a little bit difficult because everybody wants to go abroad. Hong Kong has a very good scientific community; we have everything we need although the budget is limited. Good work can be done as long as you have good ideas,' said Dr Zhou, who is backed by a team of almost 10 research staff and students here.

The early aging syndrome he studied is reported to have affected only one in eight million people. Many victims develop aging symptoms, such as hair loss, respiratory, cardiovascular or arthritic conditions that a 70-year-old would have, at a young age. Their average life span is about 13 years. Cases have been reported in the mainland and Taiwan but none so far in Hong Kong.

Albeit a rare disease, Dr Zhou has high hopes for his research, as it carries implications for treating other diseases including cancer. It also provides an opportunity to understand the fundamental basis of aging. 'You study abnormal situations to understand the normal situation, that is what most medical research does.' Using mice as genetic models, his team created mutations in an enzyme called FACE-1 which resulted in a remarkable aging-related phenotype. The mutation is believed to lead to DNA repair defects, which accelerates aging. The team is looking at ways to decrease the level of DNA damage in human cells.

Dr Zhou is hoping to set up an aging research institute through private donations and develop stem cell therapy for aging.

With all his dedication to modern sciences, Dr Zhou seems to cling to some traditional thinking. While saying that he is driven by personal interests, he added: 'In China we were educated in a way that men should be successful in their careers.'