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RGC Collaborative Research Fund - Layman Summaries of Projects Funded in 2012/2013 Exercise

Syndromic Surveillance and Modeling for Infectious Diseases
Project Coordinator: Prof Kwok-leung Tsui (CityU)

The outbreaks of SARS and swine flu have exposed the need for early outbreak detection and effective disease-spread simulation analysis for health resource management under pandemic outbreaks. Current surveillance systems lack the ability to interrogate disparate data and diverse datasets and sources, and are inaccurate in predicting infectious disease outbreaks and spread trends. This research will develop a radically new "syndromic surveillance" approach to enable reliable data-oriented infectious disease forecasting, simulation, and risk analysis. We shall:

  • Develop advanced data-mining methods to understand and extract disease transmission dynamics and mechanisms based on multiple infectious disease data sources.
  • Develop syndromic surveillance methods for analyzing public health related data for early detection of infectious disease outbreaks.
  • Develop stochastic influenza simulation and health economics models for mimicking disease-spread and risk assessment.
  • Validate the proposed research models through simulated outbreaks, clinical experiments and field experiments, and medical data from previous pandemic periods.

Functional Plasmonics with Energy Localization for Sensing, Nano-Actuation and Optoelectronics
Project Coordinator: Prof Ho Ho-pui (CUHK)

When an electromagnetic field impinges at the surface of a metal object, the field strength immediately becomes enhanced because of the induced oscillatory movement of the free electrons inside. These oscillations are also called surface plasmons. Plasmonics is a new term that collectively describes the science and technology of this effect. Surface plasmons have many desirable attributes, including amplification of intensity near the metal surface and strong field localization in the nanometer scale. Such properties are very attractive for a wide range of photonics applications. One excellent example is the plasmonic biosensor which is capable of detecting biomolecules with extremely high sensitivity. Because of plasmonics, optical traps for the manipulation of nanosized objects have become possible.

Physical exercise promotes vascular health: impact of mechano-transduction and novel endothelium-derived regulators
Project Coordinator: Prof Huang Yu (CUHK)

Cardiovascular disease (CVD), one of leading causes of mortality and disability in Hong Kong, is attributed primarily to the high prevalence of obesity and diabetes. Endothelial cell dysfunction is the key initiator in the development of vascular diseases including arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and their complications. Current drug therapies only partially alleviate diabetic symptoms but cannot reverse the disease progression. It is therefore necessary to develop more effective strategies against diabetic vasculopathy.

Physical activity produces multiple benefits against CVD. Exercise increases blood flow and shear stress to the vessel wall, which is a key mechanism for exercise-induced vascular benefits. Different shear stress patterns have profound regulatory effects on gene expressions involved in atherosclerosis, vascular inflammation, remodeling, and regeneration processes. Our preliminary results indicate that increasing laminar shear stress by exercise in diabetic mice improves endothelial function through inhibition of vascular stress signaling involving several transcription factors. However, a series of scientific questions remain to be addressed before we can better appreciate the vascular and metabolic benefits of exercise.

This proposal shall be the first of its type in Hong Kong to address the benefits of physical exercise on vascular health. The findings from the proposed study shall provide new mechanistic insights into the identification of novel targets in CVD, and will arouse public awareness over the importance of physical activity in the quality of life, especially in our ageing population in Hong Kong. Our well-established expertise and focused efforts from three local institutes and the collaboration with leading vascular biologists in mainland China and Taiwan will help us to develop an integrated platform for studying diabetes and obesity-related vascular diseases.

Macrophage-Myofibroblast-Transition in Organ Fibrosis: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Implications
Project Coordinator: Prof Lan Hui-yao (CUHK)

Tissue scarring or fibrosis is a final common pathway leading to end-stage organ failure in many life-threatening diseases, including cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, and pulmonary disorder. Myofibroblasts are key scar-producing cells leading to end-stage organ scarring. However, their origin remains controversial. Thus, the ultimate goals of this project are to further strengthen the established research expertise in tissue scarring in Hong Kong, to conduct a pioneering study to identify macrophage-myofibroblast- transition (MMT) as a new pathway in organ fibrosis, to delineate the new mechanisms that regulate MMT, and to develop novel anti-fibrosis therapies by targeting MMT.

Multifunctional ultrasensitive sensing with hybrid gold-diamond nano-systems
Project Coordinator: Prof Liu Ren-bao (CUHK)

Magnetic resonance spectroscopy has a broad range of applications such as NMR and MRI used in hospitals. A new opportunity in this field is the emergence of optically detected magnetic resonance using paramagnetic color centers in diamond, which has potential of monitoring chemical, biological and thermal processes with nanometer resolution. In this project, we will develop nano-sensors based on hybrid systems of nanodiamond and gold nanoparticles for enhanced optically detected magnetic resonance. We will employ the nano-sensors to study in-depth microscopic mechanisms in nano-chemical systems and in cells.

Development of New Methodologies for New Carborane Materials
Project Coordinator: Prof Xie Zuo-wei (CUHK)

The aim of this project is to conduct research into developing new efficient synthetic methodologies for the preparation of new functionalized carborane-containing materials for possible applications in BNCT and organic semiconductors.

Carboranes are a class of boron hydride clusters in which one or more of the BH vertices are replaced by CH units. They are thermally and chemically very stable molecules, and they are being applied in medicine as agents for boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT), and in materials science as building blocks, and in organometallic/coordination chemistry as ligands. However, there are limited efficient synthetic methods known for the preparation of functional carborane materials because of their unique structure, which has restricted the applications to within a narrow scope. To address these challenges, we have assembled a team with complementary expertise in the research areas of carboranes, organometallics, catalysis, computational chemistry, chemical biology, and organic materials.

Our previous work on carborane chemistry shows that the cage C-H behaves as an electron-deficient aliphatic moiety, whereas the cage B-H has more of an aromatic character. In this connection, we plan to actively explore transition metal-mediated or catalyzed cage B-H/C-H activation and to develop new methodologies for assembling complex molecules from simple ones in a single operation. The reaction mechanisms involved will be investigated by a combination of computational and experimental methods.

The new synthetic methods developed in this research will be used for the generation of novel organic semiconductors incorporating functional carborane moieties and new BNCT agents. It is expected that this research will not only enhance our basic understanding of cage carbon and boron chemistry, but that it will also generate new carborane-containing materials.

Study of Microglia and Myeloid Leukemia in Zebrafish
Project Coordinator: Prof Zilong WEN (HKUST)

Microglia are resident macrophages in the brain and spinal cord, and play critical roles in the generation of immune response, clearance of damaged cells and plaques, and regulation of neural circuit plasticity and activity in the central nervous system (CNS). Irregularities in microglia functions are associated with the onset and progression of a variety of CNS diseases and neurodegenerative disorders. In this proposal, we will utilize zebrafish, a popular model for studying many aspects of vertebrate development and human diseases, to dissect the development and function of microglia in the developing and adult CNS. We anticipate that the knowledge gained from the proposed study will not only provide new insights into the role of microglia in neural development and neural function, but also open up a new arena for exploring novel strategies for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders.

Green Slope Engineering: Bioengineered, Live Cover Systems for Man-made Fill Slopes and Landfill Capillary Barriers in Hong Kong
Project Coordinator: Prof Charles W.W. Ng (HKUST)

According to the Geotechnical Engineering Office of HKSAR, thousands of sub-standard man-made fill slopes are required to be upgraded urgently. The Office spends about HK$100 million on upgrading slopes every year. The current upgrading methods do not consider the use of vegetation as a part of stabilisation measures in the design of slope stability. In addition, the man-made capping design for the restoration of thirteen small, closed and three large, active "strategic" landfills does not consider the use of vegetation for enhancing slope stability and minimising rainfall infiltration and gas emission integrally. Vegetation is essentially used for aesthetic purposes. A novel, durable and environmentally friendly self-regenerating live landfill capping system, such as capillary barriers, is urgently needed.

The prime objectives of this project are to investigate and improve our fundamental understanding of root-soil-water interactions and to develop an innovative and environmentally friendly reliability-based preliminary design framework for "an integrated bioengineered live cover for man-made fill slopes and landfill capillary barriers" in Hong Kong. A capillary barrier is an earth layered system, which makes use of unsaturated hydraulic characteristics of different types of soils to minimize rainfall infiltration and to drain away infiltrated water quickly. This live cover will be self-regenerative and sustainable (almost maintenance free). Five major research tasks will be carried out by a multi-disciplinary research team. The five research tasks are field monitoring and site characterization of man-made fill slopes and landfills, centrifuge and numerical modelling of bioengineered fill slopes and landfill capillary barrier systems, development of an integrated quality assurance scheme and a preliminary reliability-based design methodology for bioengineered slopes.

Findings from this project will provide new insights into the behaviour of bioengineered slopes and landfills in Hong Kong. A novel, specific reliability-based preliminary design guideline will be developed for the design, construction, management and restoration of bioengineered live cover systems on both man-made fill slopes and landfill capillary barriers. The guideline will set out performance standards, technical information, procedural mechanisms (integrated design, construction and operational phases), and will provide necessary supporting data.

Protein Trafficking: Mechanism and Diseases
Project Coordinator: Prof Jun Xia (HKUST)

Our bodies are made of billions of cells with elaborate membrane compartments. Like in the logistics business, materials in our bodies need to be transported between different cell compartments. The transportation of proteins between different cell compartments is called protein trafficking. Protein trafficking is critical to cells and abnormal trafficking of proteins has been found to cause many human diseases. This study will investigate the machineries that regulate protein trafficking, i.e., what controls the loading, transportation and unloading of cargos during protein trafficking. We will also seek to understand how abnormal protein trafficking contributes to diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

To Establish a Metabolic Study Centre in Hong Kong: Focusing on the Emerging Metabolic Hormones
Project Coordinator: Prof. Lam, Karen Siu Ling (HKU)

Diabetes has become a widespread disease causing heavy public health and economic burden. Unfortunately, effective treatments for diabetes and its many complications are still out of grasp despite decades of basic and clinical research. As a result, the quality of life of most diabetic patients remains unsatisfactory. To improve the situation, it is crucial to gain full understanding on how the causes of diabetes happen and how diabetes leads to its complications. Such knowledge would enable us to drive novel and more effective preventative measures and treatment for the diseases. The objective of this project is to combine the strength of several basic and clinical research teams in our local institutes to establish an integrated platform for metabolic studies in Hong Kong. This platform will facilitate researchers and pharmaceutical companies in Southern China to comprehensively investigate the roles of metabolic hormones in the illness of diabetes. These investigations will provide a solid foundation for developing new diabetes therapeutics.

Ecology and biodiversity of benthic marine ecosystems before and after the trawling ban in Hong Kong coastal waters
Project Coordinator: Dr. K.M.Y. Leung (HKU)

Fisheries resources in Hong Kong (HK) have been overexploited since the 1970s. Yet, approximately 400 bottom trawlers still operate in our coastal waters, accounting for 80% of the total fishing effort, nearly double the environmentally-sustainable level. These bottom trawlers capture fishes, shrimps and crabs unselectively, irrespective of their commercial or ecological value, and have demonstrably overexploited many stocks. The process of bottom trawling also leads to severe and repeated physical damage to marine benthic ecosystems, with negative effects on biodiversity. To mitigate these impacts, the HK SAR Government will impose a territory-wide ban on bottom trawling from 31 December 2012; this is intended to allow recovery of the seabed and associated marine resources.

Our project team will test the overarching hypothesis that the trawl-ban will result in the recovery of HK's benthic marine ecosystems and associated fisheries. We will determine this by investigation, over time, of the catch-per-unit-effort of commercially important fish and invertebrate species, the biodiversity of benthic marine animals, and the mean trophic level of consumers in different guilds (i.e., food-web structure). We will also examine the effects of changing environmental characteristics on benthic biodiversity following the trawl-ban. This proposed project is undoubtedly timely and essential to verify if the trawling ban effectively facilitates ecosystem rehabilitation or recovery.

To ensure a holistic approach and build synergy, we have assembled a team (including one overseas member) with expertise in marine biodiversity, benthic ecology, trophodynamics, fisheries, sedimentology, statistics and ecological modelling. We will use a unique dataset on the condition of local fisheries and benthic biodiversity collected by our team and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department of HK SAR Government prior to the ban coming into force. This dataset puts our team in an exclusive position to be able to compare the health of HK's marine environment before and after the trawl-ban.

The study findings will be valuable for the HK SAR Government and essential for long-term monitoring and the sustainable management of marine biodiversity, which is among HK's obligations under the international Convention on Biological Diversity. The findings will inform environmental managers and economists, and will represent an example of 'good practice' for inshore fisheries management and ecosystem rehabilitation. Finally, our results will shed light on the processes influencing benthic marine ecosystems in tropical Asia and provide information for assessing future ecological impacts of coastal development projects (e.g. the 3rd airport runway) and global climate change.

Ventilation of a High-Rise Compact City
Project Coordinator: Prof Yuguo Li (HKU)

More than 50% of the world's population now lives in cities. The ventilation of these cities- particularly "mega-cities" with large populations and high concentrations of tall buildings-is fundamental for removing heat and airborne pollutants. Hong Kong's air has become increasingly stagnant. For example, wind speed has reduced by 0.6 m/s per decade since 1968 and 0.35 m/s per decade since 1995. This worrying trend continues, but no research exists to explain it and no strategy to stop it. The same decreasing trend is also observed in some other mega-cities. Reduced city ventilation and wind flow is a major cause of the heat island effect and a determinant of urban air quality. Our objectives are to systematically understand the physics and mechanisms of city ventilation when the synoptic wind is strong or weak, and the interaction of wind with buoyancy driven flows; and then determine the roles of major urban morphological, environmental and meteorological parameters in city ventilation.