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Leung Chun-ying

Next Magazine misses the mark in saying money, influence behind Leung Chuen-yan getting post at Karolinska Institute

Magazine's insinuation that money, influence were behind Leung Chuen-yan obtaining a post at Karolinska Institute off the mark

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 February, 2015, 7:22am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 February, 2015, 7:22am

The tabloid Next Magazine has the knives out for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying again. But this time, it gets more personal than usual as it involves Dr Leung Chuen-yan, his newly minted PhD son.

The magazine accuses the senior Leung of a conflict of interest by helping junior get into Sweden's Karolinska Institute, one of the world's premier research institutes. It is also closely associated with the Nobel Prize selection committees.

But how? Lau Ming-wai, the chairman of Chinese Estates Holdings and son of disgraced tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung, donated HK$400 million to the institute. After that, the institute announced it would set up its first overseas research facility in Hong Kong.

Next alleged Leung the father helped facilitate cooperation between the two sides so he could secure a job for his son. But wasn't Lau the son, a legal scholar with a PhD from King's College London, a close adviser of Henry Tang Ying-yen, Leung's rival in the last chief executive election? He was, like most of his ultra-rich property peers, hardly a Leung fan.

The insinuation is that Leung Chuen-yan with a doctorate from Cambridge doesn't deserve his job at the Karolinska Institute.

But what kind of job is it? It's a post-doctoral research post, rather than a faculty job with a career track. "Chuen-yan is very talented, but scientifically he is still on a too junior level," a Karolinska spokesman said.

With his CV, Leung the son probably could get similar junior posts in many other prestigious-sounding - at least to brand-obsessed Hongkongers - research institutes; it's not that big a deal.

Still it's interesting to learn that he is one of our locally produced bright young scholars in science with obvious passion for his field.

"Without taking into account his daddy (Croucher Foundation knows this certainly), he is a smart, dedicated young scientist, with good communication skills and a good nose for the right place to secure a future Nobel Prize (Karolinska Institute!)," said Reinhard Renneberg , a chemistry professor and leading expert in biotechnology and biosensors.

According to his Croucher Fellowship, Leung Chuen-yan was attracted to science by the selfish gene theory, which was first formulated by evolutionary biologist Bill Hamilton and later popularised by Richard Dawkins. At Imperial College London, he read bio-chemistry. He skipped a master's and went straight into a PhD programme at Cambridge University.

His primary interest is in stem cells or how cells decide to form different organs and tissues.

When most people think of stem cells, they most likely think of those embryonic cells before they differentiate into specialised cells. But more recently, scientists have discovered induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), adult cells that can be genetically reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells. This is the sub-field that young Leung specialises in.

Some of his publications, usually co-authored with multiple researchers, are interesting, with titles I can hardly pronounce. Google Scholar lists four that have been published in top journals.

"Essential role for DNA-PK-mediated phosphorylation of NR4A nuclear orphan receptors in DNA double-strand break repair" is published in the journal Genes and Development, under CSH Press, part of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in the US, which played a key role in the 20th century development of molecular genetics. The paper, in simple terms, studies a particular mechanism by which DNA repairs itself.

"Angiomotin prevents pluripotent lineage differentiation in mouse embryos via Hippo pathway-dependent and independent mechanisms" - published in Nature Communications, part of the family of the prestigious Nature weekly - studies ways in which stem cell development may develop or halt in the early mammalian embryo. Then there is "Developmental plasticity, cell fate specification and morphogenesis in the early mouse embryo", published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B and "In vitro culture of mouse blastocysts beyond the implantation stages", which ran in Nature Protocols. The latter establishes lab protocols to culture mouse blastocysts, which are early mammalian cell structures with an inner and an outer layer that can later develop into an embryo and a placenta.

Leung Chuen-yan may not be the next Watson and Crick, the discovers of DNA. But with a substantial body of published work, he is a competent young scientist who would have no problem getting a good post-doc job without daddy being the Hong Kong chief executive or a HK$400 million donation from someone who is not even friendly to his father.