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HKUST discovery can track cancer cells in the body

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 11:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 11:09am

The scientific term AIE (aggregation-induced emission) may not mean a great deal to the layman. But new AIE discoveries made by Benzhong Tang, chair professor of the department of chemistry at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), are making important contributions to cancer screening, environmental monitoring, forensic science, and bacterial detection. Tang has received numerous awards including Fellow, the Royal Society of Chemistry (2013) and Pioneer from Asia, Asian Chemical Congress (2013) for his discovery of over 100 unique fluorescent materials.

“AIE fluorescent material is attracting a lot of attention in the world of materials research due to its scientific importance and widespread practical applications,’’ says Tang, who is also director of the Hong Kong branch of the Chinese National Engineering Research Center (CNERC) for Tissue Restoration and Reconstruction. Putting the complicated process of how AIE materials are useful into plain language, the professor says he and  his co-workers have discovered an AIE phenomenon, in which some materials become strong fluorescent emitters when aggregated in targeted areas, such as living cells. At this stage, professor Tang explains AIE materials for fingerprints and tracking cancer cells have no actual names, but they all belong to the AIE family.

Elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2009, Tang’s research interests include polymer chemistry and materials science.  His mandate includes the creation of new molecules and polymers with novel structures and unique properties which have implications for high-tech applications.  The professor notes his research and discoveries can help solve some of society's most pressing problems.

“Our area of research is exciting. Not only does it create new knowledge, it has a fundamental importance because of the benefits it offers to society,’’ says Tang.

In his HKUST lab, Tang and his team have developed AIE applications that can be used for tracking cancer cells inside the human body. “When the AIE dye comes into contact with cancer cells, it illuminates,’’ explains the professor. During medical operations, the AIE materials help surgeons to accurately remove tumours and infected cells without damaging healthy cell tissue.  “This can reduce the need for extensive follow-up chemotherapy and radio therapy,” says Tang.

AIE materials discovered at the HKUST are also being used in optical displays by various top-of-the-range smart phone manufacturers. “Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) produce deeper blacks and higher contrast ratios,’’ says Tang, who is listed by the Institute for Scientific Information as a “Most Cited Scientist’’.

An AIE material discovery by Tang has the potential to revolutionise the way fingerprints are visualised.. The new material can produce better quality fingerprints than traditional fingerprinting techniques, and is significantly cheaper. It can reduce the time it takes to collect evidence by as much as 90 per cent, and fingerprints collected using AIE materials can be transmitted to a database by taking a photograph on a mobile device. The new material will also make the collection of fingerprints from bent, rounded, and uneven surfaces easier. The affable professor smiles when it’s suggested his breakthrough discovery could change the way fingerprint collection is portrayed in films and crime novels. ‘’It is interesting to think how my research could be used in the film industry, but I prefer to concentrate more on the benefits of the more practical applications,’’ answers the professor modestly. 

Superbug detection is another are of research for Tang.  The professor says that when used as a bacterial detection agent, AIE materials provide more accurate and stable results than the current applications, which expose the bacteria by staining their surfaces. The fluorescent AIE material exposes bacteria by entering their cell walls and converting them into glowing organisms. The process also increases the period the bacteria remains fluorescent, allowing for longer-term tracking. This is particularly useful for environmental monitoring, medical hygiene, food processing, and pharmaceutical quality controls.

‘’Our research work covers many areas that benefit society,’’ says Tang, who notes that HKUST’s international reputation as a pioneering university attracts high-calibre faculty and students with the abilities to conduct such cutting-edge research. “HKUST has been able to attract young and energetic scientists from all over the world, and it’s been able to help them build their research careers,’’ says Tang. A high-energy, team-orientated atmosphere in the research laboratories is a prime motivator for excellence in research achievements, he notes.

The professor says HKUST’s research and scientific breakthroughs are making an important contribution in the push to establish Hong Kong as a hub for high-tech development. A good example, according to Tang, is an AIE-related start-up firm founded by one of his students. The firm is in the process of applying to join a Hong Kong Science and Technology Park incubation programme. The proposed name of the company is "AIEgen Biotech Co., Ltd." and will be run by one of professor Tang’s former students, Dr Ni Xie.

Last year, two Hong Kong branches of the CNERC were formed in partnership with the HKUST School of Engineering. The Hong Kong branch of CNERC for Control and Treatment of Heavy Metal Pollution is led by Professor Guanghao Chen from the department of civil and environmental engineering, while Tang heads the CNERC for Tissue Restoration and Reconstruction. CNERC adds a new dimension to the HKUST’s research.

Tang is a strong believer in finding commercial applications for research discoveries which can benefit society. He says that the Hong Kong Branch of CNERC for Tissue Restoration and Reconstruction will continue to boost technological advancement in the region by fostering cooperation between academia, research, and industry, in Hong Kong and the mainland. ‘’We will be working closely with the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou to look for ways that AIE materials can be used with artificial bones and bone repair materials,’’ says Tang. 

Each of the centres will receive annual funding of up to HK$5 million from the Hong Kong Innovation and Technology Commission. “Science is a very inspiring and rewarding profession, especially when your research can help other people,’’ concludes Tang.