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HKUST research looks to TCM as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 12:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 March, 2016, 10:44am

Professor Nancy Ip Yuk-Yu, dean of science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), has spent more than two decades researching the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, an illness she describes as “devastating’’. As a result of her research, Ip believes a combination of cutting-edge science and the ancient knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can provide new therapies to combat complex neurodegenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s.

Ip and her research team have received widespread recognition for the discovery of rhynchophylline, a molecular compound which is extracted from a plant used in TCM.  Rhynchophylline is a promising candidate for slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. “TCM is a treasure chest in the search for new drugs, because, in a way, clinical trials have been carried out over thousands of years,’’ says the Academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Ip’s discovery made headlines around the world, when three months of oral testing on mice affected by neurodegenerative illness associated with Alzheimer’s disease produced significant memory improvement.  “This is the thing about science, you live it and breathe it. Despite the setbacks you have with experiments, you are constantly inspired by the importance of the work, and that makes you look ahead,’’ stresses Ip.

Ip and her team are cooperating with an international pharmaceutical company to take the research into clinical trials. Ip says a key goal is to find the causes of neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, and develop treatments to tackle the symptom before the full onslaught of the disease.

 “Every breakthrough in molecular neuroscience brings us one step closer towards developing effective therapies for treating neurodegenerative diseases and disorders,” says Ip. According to the World Health Organisation, Alzheimer's disease is one of the biggest threats facing the elderly. It has been diagnosed in about 30 million people worldwide, and that figure is expected to double every 20 years. Five years ago, Alzheimer’s disease affected about 103,000 people in Hong Kong; by 2039 it is expected to affect 332,000.

“It’s important we provide new perspectives and new approaches to dealing with a disease that is so devastating,’’ says Ip, who expects to publish two new major findings before the end of the year. “We are as excited about our current research, as we are about our previously published work,” adds Ip.

Ip says her current research is focused on a potential new drug that could be used to tackle neurodegenerative illnesses at an earlier stage.  “This is one of the reasons why fundamental research is so important in the search for treatments to give us a wider window to slow down, or even reverse, the causes of neurodegenerative illnesses,’’ says Ip.

Born in Hong Kong, Ip became a scientist after receiving a PhD in Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School.  She joined Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in the US, where she led a research team.  Motivated to help Hong Kong become a hub for the biotechnology industry, Ip returned to Hong Kong in 1993 to join HKUST, where she continued her research on the communication between brain cells and the strengthening and weakening of their activity, known in scientific terms as the modulation of synaptic transmission and plasticity. 

Ip has published 250 scientific papers with more than 17,200 Science Citation Index citations, and she holds 23 patents. She was honoured by Asian Scientist Magazine on its inaugural Asian Scientist 100 list. She has received numerous awards and honours, including the “Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite” (National Order of Merit) from the French Government.

Ip says it is an exciting time to be involved in Hong Kong’s biotechnology sector. “Collaboration with the Hong Kong Science Park, and philanthropists supporting science, are creating many interesting opportunities,’’ she says. The scientist works hard to pass her commitment and passion on to her students. “Science is such a fascinating subject. At HKUST, students are able to make self-discoveries while studying in an environment that embraces rigorous research, while pushing the boundaries to make new discoveries,’’ she says.

Ip has taught and mentored more than 70 postgraduate students, many of whom have continued their studies at prestigious international universities. Often cited by science community a role model, she stresses the rewards she gets from teaching. Helping her students develop critical thinking skills is a major source of job satisfaction, regardless of their ultimate career path, she notes.

 “Sometimes I’m on the MTR, and I think of contacting one of our students to follow-up on something, or suggest an idea,’’ she explains.  “Our students benefit from their hands-on research experience, but they are also able to expand their personal growth and intellectual development. That can be applied in many different ways,” says Ip.