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Universities in Hong Kong

Study on effects of Alzheimer’s disease on ethnic Chinese among five projects in Hong Kong getting HK$180 million in funding

Internationally renowned scientist Nancy Ip will lead study involving scientists from four of city’s universities and which is getting about HK$31 million from Research Grants Council

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 8:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 8:30am

A study using stem cells and genome-editing technologies to explore how Alzheimer’s disease affects ethnic Chinese people is among five projects getting HK$180 million (US$23 million) in Hong Kong government funding this year.

Led by internationally renowned scientist Nancy Ip Yuk-yu, the Alzheimer’s project involves scientists from four of the city’s universities and aims to contribute to efforts to find a cure for the illness.

Alzheimer’s primarily affects old people and is characterised by memory loss and impaired movement, reasoning and judgment.

Ip, a vice-president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and one of the city’s 36 deputies to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, said the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s doubles every 20 years.

“In Hong Kong, we predict there will be 330,000 people with this illness by 2039, so there is a pressing need to find a cure to improve people’s health,” she said.

Ip’s project is getting about HK$31 million from the Research Grants Council, one of the main public funding bodies for academic research, with the balance coming from the universities involved, which are also publicly funded.

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The other projects will get between HK$19 million and HK$47 million from the council under its theme-based research scheme. It dispenses a relatively larger amount compared with others, and focuses on projects where findings are of strategic importance to the long-term development of Hong Kong.

Ip noted the economic burden of Alzheimer’s and pointed to how there were still no effective treatments to reverse or halt progression of the illness.

While scientists have done a lot of research, most use brains from the deceased, and animal models such as mice, which have limitations.

“With postmortem brains, you will not understand what was going on before this stage, as patients do not have any symptoms [then],” she said.

“Alzheimer’s occurs at least one to two decades before memory loss.”

As such, Ip’s team aims to study the pathological mechanism of Alzheimer’s by using stem cells, which can be differentiated into various brain cell types and established into two-dimensional and three-dimensional neural culture models.

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She explained that the team can also use gene-editing protocols to generate mutations in the culture models, including risk genes they found in ethnic Chinese Alzheimer’s patients.

“Different ethnicities have different genetic susceptibility to different diseases and so far most of the database on Alzheimer’s is for Caucasians,” she said.

Being able to study why such changes in the brain occur can help scientists with diagnosing or even finding a cure, she said.

Another funded project will study how glass fibre structures can be used in marine infrastructure and is led by Professor Teng Jin-guang from Polytechnic University and involves researchers from City University, the University of Hong Kong and HKUST.

With coastal cities such as Hong Kong relying heavily on marine infrastructure for social-economic development, a major challenge is steel corrosion, which is the main cause for infrastructure deterioration. Typically, steel corrosion costs an economy about 3 per cent of its GDP, Teng said.

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The team’s proposal is to use materials reinforced by glass fibre, instead of steel, reducing corrosion. These materials are already used for underground pipes and bicycles.

Teng said without the threat of corrosion, builders could use seawater to make the concrete encasing structures, reducing the cost and effort needed to transport fresh water to marine sites.

While initial construction costs would be 10 per cent more expensive, Teng said, maintenance costs would be 50 per cent lower in the long run.

Teng added it could seek funding from the mainland on the national level in the future for follow-up projects.

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The other three projects are concerned with developing combination immunotherapy to cure HIV, boosting Hong Kong’s bid to be a place for fintech and financial innovations and developing image-guided surgical robots.

Council chairman Professor Benjamin Wah Wan-sang noted it received 48 preliminary proposals this year. The council uses returns on investments of its Research Endowment Fund to support projects and due to better performance this year compared to previously, it did not have to cut funding across the different schemes.