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Areas of Excellence Scheme - 3rd Round

Third Round Exercise

  • Developmental Genomics and Skeletal Research
    • Total Funding Approved : HK$85.62M (HK$50M (2004-2010) + HK$35.62M Sustained Funding (2010-2013))
    • Indicative Project Time-Frame : 2004 - 2013
    • Co-ordinating Institution : The University of Hong Kong (Prof Kathryn Cheah)

    The mission of the AoE programme is to understand the biology of skeletal growth, development and degeneration; to translate this knowledge into strategies and therapies for skeletal tissue reconstitution and repair; to transfer the knowledge to the public; and to apply these strategies for better healthcare and quality of life for the millions of people suffering from musculoskeletal problems. It is based on the concerted research efforts of a coalition of scientists and clinicians from The University of Hong Kong, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, City University of Hong Kong and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University with complementary research strengths and track records. This AoE programme is one of the very few worldwide that is taking large scale, multidisciplinary, multi-pronged approaches, combining molecular, biochemical, cellular, developmental and in vivo models with genomic, genetic and clinical studies, to address key issues in skeletal biology such as: how is normal longitudinal growth of cartilage and bone regulated? How is skeletal integrity maintained? How do gene mutations cause skeletal disease? What genetic factors affect predisposition for degenerative skeletal disorders? In the first phase of the programme, a model of scientist-clinician collaboration, we answered key questions regarding molecular controls that regulate cartilage formation and maturation and skeletal growth, and genetic susceptibility to degenerative disc disease (DDD). Our results on genetic susceptibility to degenerative disc disease, linking biology with clinical phenotypes, are beginning to change clinicians' understanding of low back pain. The team has made exciting discoveries, some of which have changed our concepts of fundamental processes in skeletal biology and disease, which has gained international recognition and placed Hong Kong research firmly on the world-stage.

    In the next phase, the AoE programme aims to build on discoveries to extend the scope of study and tackle new questions at the frontier of developmental biology and skeletal research related to skeletal development and growth, the maintenance of skeletal function and degenerative conditions with an emphasis on the spine. Using state-of-art genomic technologies, bioinformatics, structural biology and animal models, the following key questions will be tackled: How do genetic risk factors contribute to progression of DDD? Are there gene variants that protect against DDD? In the clinical setting, can these factors be used singly or in combination to identify individuals susceptible to severe DDD? What are the molecular signatures, regulatory pathways and mechanisms that distinguish the cells that make up the intervertebral disc and predispose to degeneration? What molecular mechanisms underpin the differentiation programme and reprogramming of skeletal cells that contribute to the homeostasis of bone? Are there "stem cells" for the intervertebral disc and would they have therapeutic potential? The answers provided will be applicable beyond DDD to major skeletal diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. The discoveries made and knowledge gained will lay a firm scientific foundation for the future development of therapies that could significantly improve the quality of life for millions of people.


  • Centre for Marine Environmental Research and Innovative Technology
    • Total Funding Approved : HK$68.58M (HK$45M (2004-2009) + HK$23.58M Sustained Funding (2009-2012))
    • Indicative Project Time-Frame : 2004 - 2012
    • Co-ordinating Institution : The University of Hong Kong (Prof Rudolf Wu)
      (Former Co-ordinating Institution: The City University of Hong Kong (from 1 April 2004 to 19 January 2010))

    The imminent problems caused by hypoxia (low oxygen) in coastal waters are likely to be exacerbated on a global scale. In addition, certain classes of chemicals, albeit occurring in extremely low concentrations in the marine environment, have been shown to disrupt hormonal systems of marine animals, leading to major environmental consequences including population decline. At the same time, the enormous production and extensive use of a range of new chemicals (e.g. fire retardants) in the last two decades has led to a ubiquitous distribution of these chemicals in marine environments, but their environmental fates and effects remain largely unknown. These global environmental problems are particularly imminent in Hong Kong and Southern China, where population density is very high and industrialization most rapid.

    In this project, research will be conducted to develop innovative technologies for early detection, assessment, prediction and control of impacts arising from hypoxia, endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and emerging chemicals of concern (ECCs) in the marine environment.

    Research will be focused on the following four inter-related areas:
    1. Environmental Diagnosis and Molecular Mechanisms: to develop various novel chemical technologies, as well as genomic, proteomic, metabolomic biomarkers for detection and monitoring of hypoxia, ECCs and EDCs; and to unravel the molecular mechanisms underlying the endocrine disrupting effects caused by hypoxia, ECCs and EDCs.
    2. Ecosystem Studies: to investigate the effects of hypoxia, ECCs and EDCs on larval settlement and marine communities; to collect a comprehensive time series of the pelagic and benthic ecosystem recovery of Victoria Harbour after sewage abatement; and to determine the role of zooplankton grazing in controlling algal blooms and hence reducing hypoxic impacts.
    3. Impact and Risk Assessments: to develop (a) the next generation of models to predict environmental fate, transport and carrying capacity of pollutants in nearshore waters based on laboratory and field experiments and hydrodynamic modeling, (b) a coupled physical-biological ecosystem model of hypoxia; (c) biokinetic models to predict bioaccumulation of EDCs and ECCs, and (d) public health risk assessment and probabilistic models to assess the risk of EDCs and ECCs in local waters.
    4. Mitigation, Control and Bioremediation Technologies: to develop cost-effective biological and chemical technologies for removal of ECCs and EDCs in wastewater, as well as bioremediation technologies for the clean-up of these contaminants in sediments.

    The above programs will not only be unique globally and at the forefront of research, but also foster economic development along with enhanced environmental protection. Through the above research, the team will develop a range of innovative technologies and models for assessing the health status of the marine environment, and cost-effective technologies for pollution control and bioremediation.