Areas of Excellence Scheme - Eighth Round Layman Summaries of Projects Funded

Project Title: Institute of Metabolic Medicine
Project Coordinator: Prof Aimin Xu (HKU)

The prevalence of diabetes and its comorbidities has reached epidemic levels worldwide and has become a major public health challenge. Diabetes not only shortens the life expectancy by 10-15 years, but also compromises the quality of life through its various complications. To reduce the tremendous economic and health care burdens imposed by diabetes and its complications, we plan to integrate the existing platforms and expertise of four local universities in Hong Kong, forming a transdisciplinary consortium with expertise in metabolic and vascular medicine, multi-omics, bioinformatics and artificial intelligence, chemistry and medical engineering, to combat the epidemic of these chronic diseases. Our team members have made important contributions in discovery and characterization of several metabolic hormones with diagnostic and/or therapeutic potential, and were the founders of three publicly-listed biotech companies in China and USA. We have been successful in development and licensing of diagnostic assays for management of diabetes and its complications. Furthermore, our clinical investigators have established unique biobanks including Hong Kong Cardiovascular Risk Factor Prevalence Study (CRISPS) cohort initiated in 1995/6, with prospective assessment of diabetes and its complications in the last 20 years. We also have a unique biobank of adipose biopsies collected from different depots of obese/diabetic Chinese receiving bariatric surgery.

As our community-based study identified central obesity (excessive accumulation of visceral fat) as a major risk factor for diabetes in Chinese, we propose that dysfunction and redistribution of adipose tissue, intertwined with aberrant production of adipose-secreted adipokines, are the early pathogenic events for diabetes and its complications in our population. To test this "adipocentric" hypothesis, we will investigate why visceral fat is more harmful to our cardiometabolic health than subcutaneous fat by establishing a "multi-omics" signature for different adipose depots in obese/diabetic Chinese, and will elucidate the pathogenic pathways that link dysfunction/redistribution of adipose tissues, adipokines with diabetes and its cardiovascular complications in rodents and large animals. We also will leverage on our rich clinical resources to discover new biomarkers/metabolites involved in the onset and progression of diabetes and its complications in Chinese, and to develop diagnostic assays and biomarkers-based risk engines for prediction of these diseases using big-data analysis and artificial intelligence. Furthermore, we will attempt to explore novel anti-diabetic therapies by converting "bad" adipocytes to "good" adipocytes. To implement evidence-based exercise for prevention of diabetes, we will conduct randomized clinical trials in medication-naïve prediabetic Chinese and animal studies to identify the metabolic transducers/pathways whereby exercise exerts metabolic benefits by modulating adipose functions, and to uncover the causes of those people who do not respond to exercise. Our long-term mission is to develop effective strategies for prevention, early intervention and personalized management of diabetes and cardiovascular complications, and become a leading research institute of metabolic medicine in Asia.

Project Title: Centre for Slope Safety
Project Coordinator: Prof Charles Ng (HKUST)

Landslides are life-threatening hazards in many parts of the world including Hong Kong (HK). Extreme rainfall events have recently resulted in a notable increase in the number, volume and runout distance of landslides worldwide. Records from the HK Observatory show that the maximum hourly rainfall has increased substantially over the past few decades. An unexpected rainstorm in June 2008 bombarded Lantau Island and resulted in 2,400 landslides. In August 2009, Typhoon Morakot caused landslides in Taiwan claiming more than 600 lives. The Geotechnical Engineering Office (GEO) estimates that if the 2008 Lantau rainstorm and the 2009 Typhoon Morakot rainstorm had struck the densely populated HK Island, the number of landslides would have been approximately 2,000 and 50,000 respectively. The number of casualties would be beyond imagination. Although HK is recognised for the quality of its slope safety management practice under past rainfall conditions, it is not yet ready for the kind of rainfall scenarios that are likely in the future. Slope safety in HK needs to be thoroughly investigated at different and unprecedented scales to ensure community resilience.

In this AoE project, a world-leading interdisciplinary Centre for Slope Safety will be established to provide innovative and environmentally friendly solutions for coping with future rainfall scenarios. The centre draws on HK's intellectual assets and brings together experts with the right credentials and institutions with a proven track record of success in meteorology, mathematics, geotechnical engineering, computer science & engineering, biological science, environmental science (specifically water and soil conservation), social science (specifically psychology), information science (for space and earth) and engineering education. The centre will deliver (i) a multi-tiered landslide early warning system and green risk mitigation measures; (ii) an advanced artificial intelligence system for predicting extreme weather conditions affecting slope stability; (iii) a monitoring system applying deep learning analysis to data obtained from satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles and terrestrial sensors; (iv) a dynamic stress-testing method for landslide risk analysis and management; (v) novel Massive Open Online Courses for the general public and practitioners; and (vi) world-class physical testing facilities and an advanced constitutive model with the multi-phase material point method for slope stability and large deformation predictions.

The solutions provided by the Centre for Slope Safety for coping with future likely rainfall scenarios will benefit the social, economic and academic well-being of HK and they are expected to be adopted by countries, such as Brazil, Italy and Japan, that are threatened by landslides.

Project Title: Probing the Fundamental Structure of Matter with High Energy Particle Collisions
Project Coordinator: Prof Ming-chung Chu (CUHK)

The discovery of the Higgs boson (popularly known as 'the God particle') at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN marked the beginning of a golden age for fundamental physics. The Higgs boson is an elementary particle that interacts with leptons, quarks, and weak force carriers to give them their masses, via a new fundamental force. One of the most important tasks in fundamental physics today is to measure and characterize the properties of the Higgs boson including its interactions with other elementary particles. The Higgs boson may also open up a new window to physics Beyond the Standard Model (BSM) if it couples to hidden particles, such as dark matter particles. There may be more than one Higgs particle, as predicted in many BSM theories. In the next decade, the LHC will undergo two more upgrades, so as to reach the unprecedentedly high center-of-mass energy of 14 TeV and intensity 5-7x1034cm-2s-1, greatly extending its sensitivity for new physics. With the support of 3 previous CRF grants, the project team has established itself as an active member of the ATLAS experiment at the LHC and as one of the most active particle theory groups in the region. We are fortunate to be at the right time and in the right place to seize the emerging opportunities to make breakthrough discoveries that may revolutionize our understanding of the fundamental structure of matter. We have carried out fundamental work on the Higgs particle, establishing its spin and parity, couplings to Standard Model (SM) particles, and designed new strategies for probing BSM physics. We have developed analysis tools and built an ATLAS Tier-2 computing center in Hong Kong. We plan to build upon our existing strengths in particle physics to measure the Higgs properties, search for BSM physics, develop particle physics theories, contribute to the ATLAS detector upgrade and to the R&D for the proposed Circular Electron-Positron Collider (CEPC) in China, and develop improved techniques in Big Data computing and machine learning. The proposed project is at the forefront of particle physics research and will enable Hong Kong to take full advantage of emerging opportunities. Our project will substantially raise the profile of Hong Kong scientists and their global impact, attract students to STEM subjects, and promote interdisciplinary research in physics, electronics, detector development, computing and data science.