Home > Funded Research > Funding Results > Funding Results of Other Schemes > Results of RGC Collaborative Research Fund 2013/2014 Released > RGC Collaborative Research Fund - Layman Summaries of Projects Funded in 2013/2014 Exercise

RGC Collaborative Research Fund - Layman Summaries of Projects Funded in 2013/2014 Exercise

Acquisition of a State-of-the-art Single-Crystal X-Ray Diffractometer
Project Coordinator: Prof WONG Wing-tak (PolyU)

This project aims to acquire a new Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) X-ray diffractometer. In chemical researches, information regarding the molecular structure of a compound is vital to the understanding of its properties and functionalities. From Chinese medicines to organometallic catalysts, biomedical agents to molecular machines, single-crystal X-ray crystallography is an invaluable tool to gather such information on molecular structure. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University has a long standing tradition in providing excellent molecular structural analysis to all universities in Hong Kong as well as a number of institutes in Mainland China and elsewhere. After fourteen years and over 3000 samples analysed, our system is aging and is by-now technologically obsolete. As such, we need to acquire a new diffractometer in order to maintain our ability to perform effective molecular structural analyses for interested research groups, and to complement our team of unrivaled experts. The CMOS detector, now commonly found in digital cameras, will have a much enhanced sensitivity compared to the older Charge-coupled device (CCD) technology. This will in turn enable us to tackle crystallographic problems we previously cannot, and at the same time reduce the time needed for data collection and the demand on the quality of samples. Overall, we aim to establish a high class research platform based on single-crystal X-ray crystallography here at PolyU, and become a leading light in this area of chemical researches in Hong Kong and beyond.

A Unique Multi-Functions Large-Scale Physical Model Testing Facility for Study of the Impact of Debris Flow on Flexible Barriers and Geo-Hazards in Hong Kong
Project Coordinator: Prof YIN Jianhua (PolyU)

Geo-hazards include landslides, debris flows, rock falls, collapse of all types of geotechnical structures, etc. Geo-hazards have occurred before and still impose a great danger to human life and property/infrastructures not only in Hong Kong, but also in many other places in the world.

Flexible barriers have been used in other countries, and recently in Hong Kong in order to reduce the impact of debris flows. But, there is no matured design method for the analysis and design of flexible barriers against debris flows. Therefore, there is an urgent need to build a large-scale physical model facility and to do impact tests of debris flow on flexible barriers for the validation or development of new analysis and design methods. There is no such large-scale physical model facility for such impact tests in Hong Kong and probably in the world.
The primary objective of the project is to design, build, test, and manage a unique multi-function large-scale physical model testing facility with instrumentation and accessories for studying the impact of debris flow on flexible barriers and other geo-hazards in Hong Kong. The other objectives are (a) to make the facility a multi-functional platform for carrying out research works on common geo-hazards, (b) to study new technologies and methods for prevention or reduction of geo-hazards, (c) to test and verify existing and new monitoring technologies, and (d) to validate small-scale centrifuge models, numerical models, design methods by comparison.

The mitigation of geo-hazards is a long-standing and challenge issue which needs multi-disciplinary approaches, fundamental research, and development of new technologies. Therefore, the proposed project will have a long-term and significant impact in terms of the safety of our communities and protection of our living environment, fundamental research and technology advancement.

Cost effective and survivable wide-area topology of telecommunication cabling
Project Coordinator: Prof ZUKERMAN Moshe (CityU)

Undersea cables, which carry the majority of today's Internet traffic, have become the Achilles' heel of the Internet as evidenced by costly consequences of several earthquakes in recent years. The reason for this is that many undersea cables are in close proximity of each other, and are located in earthquake-prone areas. This project aims to optimize cabling between a given set of nodes positioned on the surface of the Earth and to ensure the availability of sufficient network resources in order to maintain network connectivity and operation under realistic disaster scenarios. We will develop design methodologies for cabling systems considering cable attributes such as shape, location, and capacity, trading off cost and network resilience. The project will consider real earthquake effects and geography, and will involve telecommunications experts, earthquake engineers and mathematicians. Through this collaboration, expertise in mathematics and engineering will be combined for solving this important real life problem.

Development of Cell Manipulation Tools for Probing Functional Mechanism of Hematopoietic Cells: Robotics, Optical tweezers, and Hematopoiesis
Project Coordinator: Prof SUN Dong (CityU)

Cells are the basic functional units of all living organisms, but the understanding of individual cell mechanisms remains elusive thus far. To address this problem, we propose to develop a cell bio-probe that integrates robotics, optical tweezers, and microfluidics, and demonstrate its efficiency through manipulation and probing the functional mechanism of hematopoietic cells targeting at improved therapy for leukemia. The robotically controlled optical tweezers will allow either a single cell or simultaneously many cells to be tested and probed, enabling a high degree of repeatability and hence reducing the degree of variability. With the developed bio-probe, we will achieve: i) cell stretching manipulation for characterizing the mechanobiological properties of hematopoietic cell with reference to abnormal differentiation, ii) cell adhesion manipulation for investigating interactions between hematopoietic cells and stromal cells, and iii) cell migration manipulation for probing the mechanism regulating hematopoietic cell trafficking to the bone marrow. The generated research outcomes will also serve as important references for other cell types for the development of therapies to combat other serious human diseases.

Targeting RNA and Protein Toxicities of Polyglutamine Diseases Using Peptidylic Inhibitors
Project Coordinator: Prof CHAN Edwin Ho-Yin (CUHK)

Polyglutamine (polyQ) diseases are a group of inherited disorder that causes progressive brain deterioration. Recent biomedical research reveals that both RNA and protein contribute directly to polyQ disease toxicity. This study evaluates the use of peptidylic inhibitors to target toxic RNA and protein, the two major pathogenic species that cause brain deterioration in polyQ diseases. Peptide engineering techniques will be employed to improve the bioactivities of peptidylic inhibitors, and the engineered inhibitors will be delivered to the brain using nanoparticle-based vehicles to neutralize the toxicity. In the long run, this work will open up new therapeutic options for polyQ diseases.

Searching for New Physics with the Large Hadron Collider
Project Coordinator: Prof CHU Ming-chung (CUHK)

Built upon our successful experience in the Daya Bay Reactor Experiment and the supporting Aberdeen Tunnel Experiment, and the strong collaboration both between institutions in Hong Kong and between the Hong Kong team and leading institutes abroad, we have formed the Hong Kong experimental particle physics group to join the ATLAS Collaboration, one of the two major Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments at CERN. Deploying the largest detectors and highest energy particle accelerator in the world, the LHC experiments are well positioned for making breakthrough discoveries in fundamental physics. The LHC runs in 2011-3, at roughly half of the designed energy, already produced a huge volume of data. The discovery of the Higgs particle - or so-called God-particle - is indeed a result of these runs. We will analyze the data accumulated so far to search for new physics beyond the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and develop the analysis tools so that they will be ready when the beam energy and luminosity both increase drastically with the new LHC run, in 2014/5. The current upgrade of the ATLAS detector presents a window of opportunity for Hong Kong researchers to contribute to the hardware development of the ATLAS experiment.

Assistive Surgical Robots
Project Coordinator: Prof LIU Yunhui (CUHK)

Robots are being widely employed to perform surgical procedures in hospitals for their high accuracy in manipulating the instruments. Existing surgical robots, such as the da Vinci surgical system, are operated by physicians via sophisticated human-robot interfaces. Compared to manual minimally invasive surgery, the remote-controlled robotic surgery does not really bring many advantages, as expected, due to the lack of a control interface that generates truly haptic feeling of instrument-tissue interactions to the surgeons. In addition to the extremely high purchase cost, their long setup time, high operation and maintenance cost, and long hours of training obstruct wide applications of existing surgical robots. Instead of a bulky and expensive system, it is more desirable and cost-effective to have a small, low-cost, user-friendly, and easy-to-learn robot assistant that can automatically help surgeons side-by-side in supportive tasks like assistants. It is predicted that surgery aided by such affordable assistive surgical robots is one of the major directions of future development in surgical technology.

The objective of this project is to develop state-of-the-art technologies for robot-aided surgery and to build up a strong technological foundation in Hong Kong for further research and development in this promising and growing area of robotics by joint efforts between CUHK and CityU based on our achievements, experiences and strengths of research in robotics, in particular medical robots. Innovative solutions to the key technological problems will be developed, which include (1) design of a compliant and safe joint with passive safety protection and of assistive surgical robots with customized features to surgical procedures using the joints; (2) a safety protection scheme integrating passive safety mechanisms with energy-based active force control and fault-tolerant force sensing; (3) endoscopic image-based control algorithms for assistive surgical robots to stably interact with soft tissues without deformation models; and (4) a friendly and easy-to-learn multi-modal interface with intelligent functions such as eye gaze control and learning ability for facilitating interactions between hands-busy surgeons and the robots. To validate the developed approaches, experiments will be conducted on cadavers or animals using a robot assistant for handling endoscope in nose and throat surgery and a robot assistant for manipulating uterus in total laparoscopic hysterectomy. The proposed technologies, if successfully developed, will significantly impact on the research and development of medical robotics and help Hong Kong make an important position in this rapidly growing area.

Reading Development in Chinese and in English: Genetic and Neuroscience Correlates
Project Coordinator: Prof MCBRIDE Catherine (CUHK)

What are the genetic and neural markers of reading in the first language (L1) of Chinese and the second language (L2) of English in Hong Kong Chinese bilingual children? In the proposed project, we plan to test 300 pairs of identical and 300 pairs of fraternal Hong Kong twins in first through third grade three times in order to investigate how genetics may influence certain phenotypes, especially word reading and lexical compounding variability (i.e., the ability to form compound words, a particularly powerful correlate of reading difficulties in Chinese) in Chinese and English, respectively, and to begin to understand how genetic and environmental influences are associated in facilitating reading of Chinese and English via both testing and questionnaire data. We will also test approximately 170 of these children in order to map reading-related skills to neural markers of reading using an event-related potential (ERP) methodology among the 10% of the highest and lowest readers in each sample, respectively. Finally, we will test for associations of specific genes from among a subset of candidate genes to reading skills in L1 and L2 from among the entire sample of twins. Findings will be important for educators and researchers who are interested in the development and impairment of reading skills across orthographies and might suggest some early remediation strategies for children at-risk for reading difficulties in either a first or a second language.

New Topological States in Cold Atom and Condensed Matter Physics Systems
Project Coordinator: Prof NG Tai-Ka (HKUST)

Our project aims at exploring an inter-disciplinary, frontier area of physics - topological materials and cold atoms.

Since the discovery of topological insulators in 2006, the topological states of matter has become one of the most exciting area of research in physics because of the rich, unexpected new physics uncovered, and because of their promise for application in quantum information/computation. Lots of exciting ideas have been proposed in the last few years and the field is expanding rapidly.

Remarkably, as activities in topological matter flourishes, an independent development in cold atoms has brought these two exciting fields together. New experimental techniques developed for cold atoms have made it possible now to realize topological states hard to achieve in condensed matter systems in cold atoms. The marriage of these two fields has brought researchers in the field of condensed matter physics to collaborate with researchers in cold atoms to take lead in this emerging field of physics.

With a team of established condensed matter and cold atom theorists, our project aims at exploring this new and exciting area of collaborative research. Our team members have performed fore-front works in the field of topological materials and cold atoms separately and the project aims at building up collaborations to take lead in this emerging area of research. Together we plan to a) find new topological states which are realizable in either condensed matter or cold atom systems, b) understand the role of particle-particle interaction in these new states of matter and c) understand the properties of these states, their experimental signatures and the potential of applications in quantum information/computation.

Research in Fundamental Physics: from the Large Hadron Collider to the Universe
Project Coordinator: Prof SHIU Man Lai Gary (HKUST)

Fundamental physics addresses some key questions of Nature: What are we made of? What are the fundamental forces and matter in Nature? What is the origin of our Universe? These questions which range from subatomic to cosmological scales are intimately connected. Although key problems in fundamental physics are few, they are some of the most challenging ones in science. Advance towards their comprehension and solution requires big teams of experimentalists to extract important data, whose implications lead theorists to explore new possibilities and to make predictions for experimentalists to test.

With the discovery of the Higgs particle at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) last year, we now have a more complete picture of the elementary particles making up the known matter and the origin of their masses. Meanwhile, game-changing discoveries in astrophysics and cosmology have shaped our understanding of Nature at large scales. Observational data reveal that all known matter constitutes less than 5% of the total energy-matter content of the universe, and the remaining 95% is made up of dark matter and dark energy. While the observational evidence for dark energy (Nobel Prize 2011) is compelling, its theoretical underpinning remains a great mystery. Likewise, the existence of dark matter opens the next frontier in particle physics: the search for new physics beyond the Standard Model. Moreover, precise cosmological data provide strong support for cosmic inflation in which the early universe was driven by an enormous dark energy that triggers the standard hot Big Bang. Future experiments are poised to unveil its underpinnings.

Fundamental physics is a brand new initiative in Hong Kong. This proposal focuses on its theoretical aspects because we have now a critical mass of theoretical physicists in Hong Kong working on these areas while the experimental program is actively being developed. As fundamental physics enters a data-rich era, it is crucial for theorists and experimentalists to collaborate closely. Theoretical studies are keys to understanding the vast amount of data and designing new search strategies. Our team comprises researchers with complimentary expertise in a wide range of interconnected areas in particle physics, astrophysics, and cosmology. By pooling our manpower, we will address such fundamental issues as the nature of dark matter and dark energy, cosmic inflation, and particle physics beyond the Standard Model using a multi-pronged approach: from theoretical underpinnings, to model building, to phenomenological studies, to designing search strategies and to compare theoretical predictions with data.

Super-resolution imaging: revealing the molecular organization of subcellular organelles
Project Coordinator: Prof HERRUP Karl (HKUST)

The basis of this project is a collaboration between a group of physicists with a strong background in optics and a group of biologists with a range of important biological problems to solve. The goal is to exploit the rapid advances in super-resolution microscopy that are revolutionizing the field of cell biology. The central platform to be developed is an imaging facility that contains two state-of-the-art high resolution microscopes. The first scope will be a STORM microscope that is capable of achieving spatial resolutions as good as 20 nanometers. This is a ten-fold improvement on the resolution of even the best epifluorescent microscope. The second scope will be a light sheet microscope, whose advantage is in improved sample preservation and fast acquisition times. The biological problems to be addressed will take maximum advantage of this enhanced resolving power. The first is the dynamics of vesicle trafficking. This topic was the subject of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and is an area of active exploration. We will focus in particular on the dynamics of synaptic vesicles in nerve cells and lipid droplets in intestinal cells. The second biological problem is the response of mitochondria to a variety of biological stressors. This has wide biomedical relevance, in particular to the development of Parkinson's disease. The third problem is the spatial parameters of protein-DNA interactions during DNA replication. Cell division is a fundamental property of all living cells; our findings should have direct implications for stem cell biology and cancer. The final problem we will address is structure of the synapse itself. These "protoplasmic kisses" are the basis of all brain activity and tiny changes in their structure are the basis of learning and memory. When these changes are not well regulated, diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer's are the inevitable result. The facility we have envisioned will be at the cutting edge of this branch of Life Science. Aided by improvements in the physics of the microscopes, we will be in a position to make major contributions to many different areas of biomedical science.

Regulation of heterochromatin remodeling in DNA repair and aging
Project Coordinator: Dr. ZHOU Zhongjun (HKU)

Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome (HGPS), an early onset severe form of accelerated aging disorder, is predominantly caused by a specific LMNA gene mutation which gives rise to a mutant nuclear protein lamin A, called progerin. The existence and age-dependent increase of progerin in normal cells suggest a potential link between HGPS and normal aging. Loss of Zmpste24 in mice, an enzyme responsible for the maturation of lamin A, results in accumulation of unprocessed lamin A and recapitulates many of HGPS features, serving as an ideal mouse model for HGPS. Our previous studies demonstrated that unprocessed lamin A or progerin impairs DNA repair. Our recent work revealed a chromatin remodeling defect in progeroid cells due to abnormal localization of several important nuclear proteins that regulate chromatin structure. Mislocalization of these critical chromatin modulators results in compromised chromatin dynamics upon DNA damage, triggering increased stress response, defective DNA repair, rapid stem cell decline, and accelerated aging. Targeting these modulators ameliorates premature aging and extends lifespan in HGPS mouse model. In this study, we will further identify and characterize lamin A-interacting proteins critical for chromatin dynamics and investigate their contributions to DNA repair, cellular senescence and aging. We will elucidate structural basis for the activation of SIRT1 or SIRT6 by lamin A. In addition, we will investigate how prelamin A/progerin compromises the integrity of chromosome ends (telomere) structure and functions. The potential roles for UHRF1, SIRT1 and SIRT6 in chromatin dynamics will also be addressed. This study will not only provide new insights into role of lamin A in chromatin dynamics and aging, but also help to develop novel strategy for the intervention of accelerated aging and aging-related disorders in elderly.

Mechanism of potentiating HIV antigen-specific CD8+ T cells
Project Coordinator: Dr. CHEN Zhiwei (HKU)

HIV/AIDS has been one of the most deadly human diseases since 1981, which has killed 35 million people while another 35 million are still living with and spreading HIV (WHO, 2011). After over 30 years, one may ask why vaccine and therapeutic cure are not successful against HIV/AIDS. To find the answer, we aim to investigate the mechanism of potentiating HIV antigen-specific CD8+ T cells. This proposal is based on our novel discoveries that both programmed death-1 (PD1)- and a novel PD1 isoform (Δ42PD1)-based DNA vaccines enhance HIV antigen-specific CD8+ T cells, which confer not only protection against deadly viral challenges but also cure of an antigen-expressing malignant mesothelioma in mouse models. In the proposed study, we will further reveal molecular mechanisms of potentiating functional CD8+ T cells in both quantitative and qualitative ways so that we can ultimately make significant contributions to the development of effective vaccines for HIV prevention and immunotherapy of AIDS.

Two-Dimensional Transition-Metal Dichalcogenides - from Materials, Physics to Devices
Project Coordinator: Prof XIE Mao Hai (HKU)

Single atomic layer or monolayer transition-metal dichalcogenides (TMDCs) represent a family of two-dimensional (2D) materials that are of great current research interest due to their novel properties and the promise in nano-electronics and nano-optoelectronics. Monolayer TMDC samples have been successfully obtained by exfoliation using Scotch tape from bulk crystals, for example, and some interesting properties have been discovered using such exfoliated samples. They include orders of magnitude increase in luminescence efficiency in monolayer TMDC than the bulk crystals. Prototype devices have also been demonstrated using such 2D materials.
The exfoliated flake samples are generally small in size and not very reproducible. It is highly desirable to have wafer-size samples with precisely controlled thickness and doping for better explorations of fundamental physics and applications in devices. In this proposal, we bring together a team of active researchers of complementary background and expertise for a concerted effort aiming to (1) produce high quality wafer scale 2D TMDC samples; (2) explore new physics and properties of 2D TMDCs and related heterostructures; and (3) experiment device fabrication and performances. We shall combine experiments with theory for a comprehensive program, which will expectedly lead to new findings and impact on 2D material research.