RGC Collaborative Research Fund - Layman Summaries of Projects Funded in 2020/21 Exercise
CRF 2020/21 Collaborative Research Project Grant (CRPG) Proposals

Project Reference No. : C1006-20WF
Project Title : A universal solid/liquid-based framework for efficient water energy harvesting
Project Coordinator : Professor Wang Zuankai
University : City University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Efficient energy harvesting energy from water at a myriad of scales is a promising way to settle the pressing global energy shortage. The large-scale hydropower generation is restricted to huge cost and demanding for high frequency running water. The state-of-the-art approaches drawing energy from low frequency source are generally limited by low energy density and poor durability. In this project, we will develop a universal platform that combines the advantages in both droplet-based bulk effect energy generator (BEEG) and slippery interfaces through an integrated approach. The main tasks include the probing of the basic principles underpinning efficient energy generation rendered by the fusion of slippery interfaces with bulk-effect architecture, as well as developing efficient energy harvesting devices that can operate in a wide range of environmental conditions (temperature and humidity), energy sources (open or closed) and formats (discrete or continuous), or scales (micro/nanoscale or large scale). The original concept proposed would trigger a new wave of innovation for energy harvesting devices and have profound consequences across the entire spectrum of science, engineering, and technology.

Project Reference No. : C4002-20WF
Project Title : Vacuole Dynamics, Biogenesis and Functions in Plants
Project Coordinator : Professor Jiang Liwen
University : The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Vacuoles are membrane-bound organelles that play essential roles in regulating plant growth and development, however, the dynamics, biogenesis and functions of vacuoles in various plant cell types and developmental stages remain elusive. Recent evidences support the existence of distinct models of vacuole formation and functions in various plant cell types and developmental stages, a hypothesis being tested in this study. Here we propose a timely study to extend our understanding about vacuole biogenesis, dynamics and functions in various plant tissues and developmental stages, using a combination of cellular, molecular, proteomic and genetic approaches as well as advanced whole-cell 3D Electron Tomography (ET) and Cryo-ET technologies.

Project Reference No. : C4023-20GF
Project Title : Deploying Geospatial Big Data and Real-time Mobile Sensing to Assess the Health Impacts of Individual Exposure to Green/blue Spaces, Light at Night, Air Pollution, and Noise (GLAN)
Project Coordinator : Professor Kwan Mei Po
University : The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The environment in which people live has a crucial impact on their health. However, most studies on the health impacts of environmental risk factors considered only one or two environmental risk factors based on people’s exposures to these factors in their residential neighborhoods. This project seeks to more accurately assess individual exposure to green/blue spaces (e.g., parks and beaches), light at night, air pollution and noise (GLAN) and its impacts on people’s health in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. It is based on a dynamic multi-exposure, multi-outcome conceptual framework that considers many mediating pathways and confounders. Data will be obtained through: (a) creating a high-resolution geospatial big dataset of the environmental factors in the study areas, and (b) collecting individual-level data in each study area using GPS tracking and real-time mobile sensing (e.g., air pollutant sensors). Using these data, hypotheses about the direct and indirect health impacts of GLAN exposure will be tested. By addressing the limitations of past studies, the results will provide reliable scientific evidence for developing effective preventive measures or policies and facilitating the creation of healthy living environments.

Project Reference No. : C5018-20GF
Project Title : Development of next-generation key technologies for smart buildings
Project Coordinator : Professor Wang Shengwei
University : The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Layman Summary

Energy efficiency of buildings is one of the key issues for energy conservation and environmental sustainability, as buildings contribute over 40% of overall energy consumption worldwide and over 60% in Hong Kong. The wide use of smart building technologies has made increasingly significant contributions to the energy and management efficiencies of buildings. However, the building automation industry is facing critical challenges and also great opportunities for the development of next generation building automation technologies. The main challenges include the increasing complexity of building energy systems, increasing needs of engaging smart power grids and occupants in building energy optimization, and increasingly huge amount of building operation data that are not used effectively. The opportunities come from the development of IoT technologies and their greater market penetration which bring about increasingly available IoT devices for convenient and low-cost monitoring/control solutions, and the increasing mechanical and electrical components embodied with smart (IoT) devices. Integrating these IoT devices to build field networks for building automation and integrating them to Building Automation Systems (BASs) offer great benefits. However, current development of IoT technologies and the real-time optimization technologies restrict their actual applications as most control functions in buildings are real-time applications for which the response time and data transfer reliability are critical.

This project therefore aims at developing the fundamental methodologies and essential technologies for next-generation BASs for smart buildings. To achieve this project aim, a better understanding of the complex interactive energy systems and three fundamental technologies will be developed to support the development of two advanced real-time energy management and optimization technologies. The major research tasks are grouped into six work packages besides test and validation: (1) characterization of dynamics, interactions and uncertainties of complex energy systems, (2) development of integrated IoT-enabled field control networks and occupancy sensing, (3) development of big data analysis framework, (4) development of distributed real-time optimization and cross-system coordination methodologies, (5) development of real-time optimal control technologies/strategies, and (6) development of automated health monitoring and diagnosis technologies.

A multidisciplinary approach will be adopted to bring advances in Information Technology, data science and distributed real-time optimization into building energy system optimization and building automation engineering. This project will develop advanced technologies and engineering tools that define the next generation of smart building automation, tapping the potential of a major increase in energy efficiency at building and grid scales.

Project Reference No. : C5031-20GF
Project Title : Durable and high-performance zinc-air flow batteries for energy storage
Project Coordinator : Professor Ni Meng
University : The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Layman Summary

Successful application of intermittent and site-specific renewable power requires efficient and cost-effective grid-scale energy storage. Zn-air batteries are promising for energy storage but suffer from Zn dendrite growth, Zn electrode passivation, hydrogen evolution (unwanted side reaction), sluggish oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) in discharge and oxygen evolution reaction (OER) in charge. These issues could be well solved with the use of flowing electrolyte. However, the effects of flowing electrolyte on the above processes are still unclear. This project aims to gain a fundamental understanding on the effect of flowing electrolyte on the chemical physical processes on the Zn electrode and air electrode, for the development of high performance and durable Zn-air flow battery. Advanced in-situ visualization techniques and electrochemical tests as well as ex-situ characterizations will be conducted. New electrode materials such as perovskite-based bifunctional catalysts will be explored. The experimental research will be supplemented by mathematical modeling to understand the flowing electrolyte effects and to optimize the operating and structural parameters. Successful implementation of this project will contribute to the development of high performance and durable batteries for grid-scale energy storage.

Project Reference No. : C6006-20GF
Project Title : Engineering a safer urban forest under extreme storms
Project Coordinator : Professor Leung Kwan Anthony
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

Urban greening has been advocated in metropolitan cities worldwide, with the aim of restoring ecosystems and ‘reclaiming the natural environment’ within the built environment (i.e. urban forests). Governments have invested billions of dollars in planting trees and building urban forests. However, the increasing intensity of cyclones and hurricanes caused by the effects of climate change has led to an increasing number of tree failures. Existing methods of assessing urban tree risk are qualitative and empirical, relying primarily on the experience of tree professionals and visual assessments to identify potential above-ground problems, such as deterioration due to brown root rot disease. Meanwhile, below-ground problems such as uprooting have received scant attention. Tree uprooting is mainly caused by roots having to grow, penetrate and anchor in highly compacted urban soil, required to support pavement loads. To build a more wind-resilient urban forest, two key questions and challenges must be addressed:

1. Can urban soil be conditioned to facilitate root growth and anchorage?
2. Is there a quantitative method with sound scientific basis to assess tree stability?

Assessing tree root anchorage and stability when exposed to wind (i.e., wind-tree-soil interaction) is complex and requires cross-disciplinary knowledge. In this collaborative project, a team composed of a tree ecologist, a soil scientist, a structural engineer, a geotechnical engineer and a risk engineer will combine their expertise to tackle these two challenges. We will view trees as nonlinear, flexible structures subject to dynamic loading, a system that can be analysed quantitatively by using engineering principles. Through complementary research methodologies including field testing, physical model testing, numerical modelling and reliability analysis, this project will provide two key deliverables:

1. Biochar-amended structural soil to improve tree root penetration and anchorage;
2. Tree dynamic models to quantitatively assess urban tree risk.

The findings will equip tree professionals and engineers with new knowledge and engineering design tools to assess the stability of urban trees, allowing them to make informed decisions to build future urban forests that are more resilient to extreme winds.

Project Reference No. : C6009-20GF
Project Title : New phases of quantum matter in engineered atomic systems
Project Coordinator : Professor Jo Gyu Boong
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

The ever-increasing demand for new quantum matter has driven the engineering of synthetic systems. Among many candidates, ultracold atoms and molecules provide synthetic quantum materials whose system properties can be freely tuned on demand. This maneuverability offers a great opportunity to discover new phases of quantum matter which can drive and revolutionize modern technologies.

Over the past few years, we have witnessed unprecedented advances in our understanding of quantum matter in the presence of non-trivial topology, dissipation, and interactions that are ubiquitous in nature. Nevertheless, our understanding of such cutting-edge quantum matter is often impeded by the inherent complexities in the system. Here we aim to overcome this problem by using engineered atomic systems through which experimental studies can be coherently integrated with minimal theoretical models in a controlled manner.

In the project, we will quantum-simulate fundamental Hamiltonians with non-trivial topology, interactions, and dissipations, and then develop a set of advanced tools and methods for emulating new phases of quantum matter comprising ultracold atoms and molecules. To create, characterize, and understand the physical principles behind new quantum matter, experimental groups in close collaboration with theoretical groups will use various state-of-the-art platforms, including spin-orbit-coupled atoms, non-alkali atoms and ultracold polar molecules.

Project Reference No. : C6011-20GF
Project Title : Development of High-Performance and Long-Life Alkaline Membrane Fuel Cells
Project Coordinator : Professor Shao Minhua
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

The alkaline membrane fuel cell (AMFC) is a promising alternative to the commercially available proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC). The possibility of using inexpensive catalysts in both the anode and cathode in combination with high hardware stability in a high-pH electrolyte have driven the development of AMFCs over the past decade. While promising, the AMFC remains in an early stage of development and has yet to be systematically investigated. This collaborative project aims to develop an AMFC system using inexpensive catalysts and a hybrid alkaline membrane, as well as to optimize the membrane electrode assembly and fuel cell system. The outcomes of this project will have great impact on the development of next-generation AMFC technology and bring it many steps closer to commercialization.

Project Reference No. : C6012-20GF
Project Title : Harnessing the "Fog" of Ambient RF Waves
Project Coordinator : Professor Murch Ross David
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

The wireless revolution has changed the way we communicate and created a mobile information society. One foundation for this revolution has been the use of radio frequency (RF) waves for the transmission of information. Using RF waves, we can now communicate in virtually any environment – whether indoor or outdoor, and whether we are mobile or not. More descriptively, the RF wave environment can now be considered a “fog” of ambient RF waves that is ubiquitous.

Can we harness the existing “fog” of ambient RF waves for our benefit, without adding further RF transmissions to the environment? Exciting and important applications are possible, including (a) sensing and imaging for navigation and security; (b) enhancing future wireless communication with the use of intelligent surfaces; (c) developing new paradigms for communication, and (d) harvesting ambient RF energy to power sensors, all without requiring additional RF waves. While each of these applications is interesting, significant further research is needed to exploit the full potential of ambient RF waves.

The mission of this research program is to develop theories and techniques to harness ambient RF waves for the benefit of humanity. We will develop cutting-edge technologies through multidisciplinary research, spanning physics, electromagnetics, signal processing, wireless communication and artificial intelligence. The measurable benefits and impact beyond academia for harnessing ambient RF waves are enormous. They include commercial impact in the form of technology transfer and enhanced services, as well as innumerable applications in the fields of health and the environment.

Project Reference No. : C6014-20WF
Project Title : New Aggregation-Induced Emission Systems: Solving the Existing Problems in Bioimaging and Developing New Biological Applications
Project Coordinator : Professor Tang Benzhong
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

Fluorescence bioimaging has become an indispensable tool for visualizing biomarkers and dynamic processes in biological research, disease diagnosis and image-guided surgery and therapy, with merits of real-time and in-situ operability and non-invasiveness. However, several problems occur in bioimaging that uses traditional organic luminophores, namely severe photobleaching, a low signal-to-background ratio, limited penetration depth and the aggregation-caused quenching effect. In contrast, aggregation-induced emission luminogens (AIEgens) and their nanodots suffer none of these drawbacks and exhibit unique (and desirable) optical properties, such as efficient solid-state emission, a large Stokes shift, strong photobleaching resistance, a high-signal-to-background ratio, efficient generation of reactive oxygen species, and excellent biocompatibility. Thus, the development of AIE technologies has great potential to create a revolution in the application of bioimaging. In this proposed project, new AIEgens with emission in the second near-infrared window, persistent room-temperature phosphorescence and chemiluminescence will be designed and synthesized. These molecules are anticipated to alleviate the problems of traditional luminophores in bioimaging and allow in vivo bioimaging with a high signal-to-background ratio and deep penetration. The working principles and structure-property relationship of these new systems will be elucidated to assist the future design of new materials with excellent biocompatibility and properties for wide biological applications. It is believed that the new design theories, materials, and technologies generated from this project will elevate molecular design to the next level and deepen our understanding of photo-physical processes in the aggregated state and meso-level, as well as enhance the competitiveness of local industrial and clinical sectors.

Project Reference No. : C6016-20GF
Project Title : The study of the crossover between polycrystalline and amorphous solids by colloidal and metallic systems
Project Coordinator : Professor Han Yilong
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

Crystals and glasses (i.e., amorphous solids) are two basic forms of solids that have been traditionally studied separately. In this study, we will bridge these two solids by examining their crossover regimes, that is, (1) ultrafine-grained polycrystals and (2) crystalline–amorphous composites. These two types of materials have unique properties, but their mechanisms are poorly understood, as they are difficult to fabricate, and the motions of atoms are not measurable. We will overcome these challenges by using colloids, granulars, and metallic alloys.

For ultrafine-grained polycrystals, our preliminary simulation revealed a novel fabrication approach – the compression of polycrystals composed of both soft and hard particles. We will experimentally fabricate such compression-induced ultrafine-grained polycrystals, for the first time, using novel colloids, and investigate their formation kinetics and mechanism. This endeavor can guide the fabrication of ultrafine-grained polycrystals in atomic systems.

Crystalline–amorphous composites have recently been fabricated in metallic materials, including our novel NiTi superalloy with exceptional properties, such as a record-breaking fatigue life. We will refine our fabrication recipe to further improve alloy properties. The fabrication of crystalline–amorphous composites is mainly a trial-and-error process, because their microscopic formation processes and mechanisms are poorly understood. We will investigate these problems at the single-particle level, for the first time, using colloidal and granular systems under compression or shear and theoretical lattice designs.

Micrometer-sized colloidal particles and their thermal motions can be visualized directly under optical microscopy even inside bulk crystals or glasses. As excellent model systems, colloids provide important microscopic information on crystals and glasses but not on polycrystal–glass crossovers. Meanwhile, centimeter-sized granular particles serve as important model systems for glasses but not for polycrystal–glass crossovers. We will fabricate colloidal and granular crystal–glass composites with designed structures rarely achieved in atomic systems. This endeavor will open new avenues for understanding basic questions, such as how structures and defect motions affect material properties. In addition, we will test and generalize several classical results of polycrystals or glasses to their crossover regimes for the first time.

This research bridges macroscopic properties in metals and microscopic kinetics in colloids in basic science and engineering applications through experiments, simulations, and theoretical modeling. The results will be crucial for understanding the mechanisms of unusual material properties and guiding the fabrication of super metallic nanocrystals and composite materials.

Project Reference No. : C6017-20GF
Project Title : Dark Matter and the Universe
Project Coordinator : Professor Liu Tao
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

Dark matter (DM) is one of the most mysterious cosmic puzzles, uncovered by wide-ranging observations from the cosmic microwave background to large-scale structure and galaxy rotation. Astrophysicists and cosmologists have accurately established that DM comprises 84% of the universe’s matter, while stars and gas only account for 16%. Decades of studies have converged on a consensus that DM must be predominantly some form of unknown massive particles, although part of it could still be explained by astrophysical objects, such as primordial black holes (PBHs). This consensus naturally raises the question of how to accommodate DM particles into the theory of particle physics, as no suitable DM candidate exists in the Standard Model.

Ingenious hypothetical extensions to particle theory have been proposed over the past few decades. Among them, the paradigm of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) is especially influential. This idea potentially unites DM with physics, which dynamically drives electroweak symmetry breaking. It accounts for the relic abundance of DM, predicts the individual DM particle mass to be of electroweak scale, and can be responsible for the Higgs particle discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). However, no such particles have materialized at LHC or elsewhere. This situation has driven scientists to reevaluate exiting DM theories and detection strategies, and develop new ideas.

In this CRF project, we propose to utilize the expected first data of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to explore the nature of DM, by combining the expertise of particle physicists, astrophysicists and cosmologists in Hong Kong. Space telescopes such as Hubble and Spitzer have historically generated far-reaching impacts for the study of DM. As a next-generation space telescope, JWST has the unprecedented capability of imaging lensing objects and clusters in both near- and mid-infrared. In one aspect, this will allow us to constrain the proportion of DM in the form of PBHs, and in another, determine the favored DM candidate between WIMP and fuzzy DM (an alternative theory to WIMP). If the first JWST data is late, as a back-up plan, we will continue our explorations on the nature of DM using the HST data. With these efforts, we expect that the Hong Kong team will, for the first time, provide a world-leading picture on the nature of DM.

Project Reference No. : C7003-20GF
Project Title : Integrative Chemical Biology Approaches to Investigate the Biological Process of Bacterial Pseudaminic Acid
Project Coordinator : Professor Li Xuechen
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Bacterial pathogens resistant to all classes of clinically used antibiotics have caused a public panic around the world. The shortage and slow development of new antibiotics are calling for the increasing efforts in more fundamental research to better understand bacterial pathogenesis and explore new antibacterial targets. Pseudaminic acid is a class of nine-carbon acidic monosaccharide and is found in many pathogenic Gram-negative bacteria as surface glycans and glycoconjugates. Although bacterial surface glycans can be linked to bacterial pathogenesis, virulence, biofilm formation, host colonization, host recognition, host mimicry and immune evasion, the biological significance and therapeutic values of bacterial pseudaminic acid and its glycoconjugates remain largely unknown. In this project, we will integrate chemistry with biology, and develop chemical biology tools to investigate the biological process of bacterial pseudaminic acid.

Project Reference No. : C7005-20GF
Project Title : Development of DNA-encoded glycan constructs as multivalent influenza hemagglutinin inhibitors towards novel anti-influenza therapy
Project Coordinator : Dr. Xiaoyu Li
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Pandemic influenza A has been a serious and continuous threat to public health in Hong Kong. Although not an influenza, the current COVID-19 pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) represents a global public health crisis. Today, clinical anti-influenza drugs face serious resistance issues and the great concerns about influenza pandemic have pressed urgent need in searching for the next generation anti-influenza drugs. This project proposes to use a novel drug discovery technology, DNA-encoded chemical library (DEL), to interrogate Hemagglutinin (HA), an influenza protein that plays key roles in the viral infection of host cells. This project will build multi-billion- compound library, identify potent HA inhibitors, and develop potential anti-influenza drug candidates.

Project Reference No. : C7009-20GF
Project Title : Structure and molecular mechanisms of the eukaryotic replisome
Project Coordinator : Dr. Zhai Yuanliang
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

In eukaryotes, DNA replication is tightly regulated to ensure a faithful duplication of genomic DNA packaged as chromatin. Misregulation of this process can have catastrophic consequences for genome stability. The machine dedicated for DNA replication is known as the replisome, which is made up of at least three engines at its core: a CMG helicase at the front that separates duplex DNA at replication fork, and two DNA polymerases, one on each strand, that replicate the unwound DNA. In the past several decades, eukaryotic DNA replication has been extensively investigated at the genetic and biochemical level. Particularly, this process has recently been recapitulated in in vitro DNA replication systems. However, despite years of effort by multiple groups, the detailed mechanisms by which the replisome travels through chromatin to replicate the genetic as well as the epigenetic information with fidelity are not well understood at a molecular level.

Unravelling the molecular mechanisms of each biological process in detail requires the structures of the relevant protein complexes determined at atomic or near atomic resolution. With the technology advancement in cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), high-resolution structures of large replication complexes are emerging. Recently, our research group has joint forces with our collaborators to solve a series of cryo-EM structures of replication complexes. The information derived from these structures and those from other laboratories is changing the way we think about the regulation of DNA replication.

In this collaborative project, we will take advantage of cryo-EM technology to further investigate the eukaryotic replisomes isolated from both yeast and human cells. In parallel, we also teamed up with researchers having multidisciplinary expertise to characterize the roles of the eukaryotic replisome components from different angles at a molecular level. We will employ proteomics, chemical biology, and biophysical approaches to facilitate structure determination by cryo-EM. We will use optical tweezers to perform single molecule studies of in vitro reconstituted system for functional analyses. This study aims to resolve long-standing questions in the field about the translocation mechanisms of the replisome along chromosomes that requires nucleosomes processing and roadblocks manoeuvring while replicating the genome. The outcomes of the proposed research are expected to decipher the conglomerate structures and operating principles of the eukaryotic replisome in action under normal and challenging conditions. The fine details gathered for every aspect of the human replisome will also provide a structural framework for identifying better potential targets in the replisome for developing novel anti-cancer drugs with high specificity.

Project Reference No. : C7018-20GF
Project Title : Controlling the moisture – towards stable and efficient flexible perovskite solar cells
Project Coordinator : Professor Djurišić Aleksandra B.
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

For a wide scale adoption of solar energy, it is necessary to achieve low cost production and short energy payback times of solar cells. To achieve this goal, low cost deposition on flexible substrates by roll-to-roll processing is highly desirable, and various emerging low cost photovoltaic technologies that are compatible with such fabrication approach have been intensively investigated. Among emerging photovoltaics, perovskite solar cells (PSCs) are particularly promising since their efficiency (over 25% on rigid substrates) is already higher compared to several established, more mature technologies. However, PSCs exhibit sensitivity to moisture, illumination, and temperature and these stability problems are even more pronounced in flexible devices due to high oxygen and moisture permeability of the polymer substrates and increased resistance of the electrodes due to mechanical stress. To address these issues, we propose to develop customized polymer substrates with decreased water transmission ratio and increased hydrophobicity by incorporating barrier layers, and increased mechanical robustness and chemical stability of the bottom electrode by using multilayer electrodes based in a metal grid embedded into the polymer substrate. Our flexible PSCs will contain charge transport layers, perovskite layers, and interfacial layers which would enable increased environmental stability and reduced ion migration, which would enable increased stability on both rigid and flexible substrates. Finally, we will develop encapsulation techniques and materials to perform a dual function of inhibiting oxygen and moisture penetration into packaged devices and prevent leaching out of Pb from the perovskite layer to ensure safety-by-design. The degradation mechanisms as a function of device architecture, substrate modifications and encapsulation method will be investigated in detail, and the obtained information will be applied to further optimize substrate and device design to increase stability and eventually achieve flexible PSCs with high efficiency and excellent stability. The comprehensive stability testing using standardized protocols, including outdoor testing, will enable us to elucidate the degradation mechanisms, develop degradation model and establish the link between lifetime estimated in laboratory using accelerated aging and actual outdoor lifetime, which will represent a significant contribution in further development of PSCs and bring this exciting technology closer to practical applications.

Project Reference No. : C7026-20GF
Project Title : Investigating protein homeostasis during neuronal development and aging through cell-specific proteomics and interactomics
Project Coordinator : Dr. Zheng Chaogu
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The regulation of protein synthesis and degradation (protein homeostasis) is important for the development of the nervous system and for preventing neurodegeneration. In humans, dysregulation of protein homeostasis is associated with many neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Parkinson’s disease). In this project, we will develop an interdisciplinary chemical biology approach to isolate proteins from specific types of neurons in the nervous system and also identify their interacting partners at the same time. This new method can benefit the research on the molecular mechanisms of neuronal differentiation and degeneration. Specifically, we will apply this method to study the role of molecular chaperones, a group of proteins that help fold and stabilize other proteins, in neuronal development and aging. We will identify the targets of these chaperones, which may have neuroprotective functions in Parkinson’s disease. In general, our goal is to establish a new way of studying cell-specific protein expression and protein-protein interaction in the nervous system, which may help discover novel therapeutic targets for neurodegenerative disorders.

Project Reference No. : C7033-20GF
Project Title : Deciphering the Physiological Functions and Regulation of the Endogenous CRISPR-Cas System for Biotechnological and Therapeutic Exploitations: Type I-F as a Paradigm
Project Coordinator : Dr. Yan Aixin
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Genome editing is essential to understand the complex biology of microorganisms and fully unlock their pathogenic or application potentials. In recent years, the advent of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat)-Cas (CRISPR-associated)-based genetic technologies has revolutionized our ability to target and alter DNA sequences, enabling genome editing with efficiency and simplicity. Specifically, owing to its simple requirement of only a single, multifunctional endonuclease Cas9 or Cas12a for DNA interference, the class 2 CRISPR-Cas mediated editing technique has been widely implemented for genetic manipulation in diverse organisms and cell lines. However, the class 2 CRISPR systems constitute only 10% of CRISPR-Cas systems in nature and their applications in bacterial genome editing are rather limited. The most diverse and widely distributed CRISPR-Cas systems is the class 1 type I systems which account for 50% of all CRISPR-Cas systems identified so far. This type of CRISPR-Cas systems hinge on a multi-component effector complex termed as Cascade to interfere DNA and has the potential to expand the CRISPR-based toolkits with distinctive advantages not accessible with the class 2 systems. This proposal thus utilize the type I-F CRISPR-Cas system encoded in PA154197 as a paradigm to comprehensively and systematically decipher the regulation and phsiological functions of the native type I CRISPR-Cas system, and translate the findings to I-F CRISPR-Cas-mediated genome editing and transcription modulation. This study will provide a framework for understanding and exploitations of other class I CRISPR-Cas systems which represent 90% of the CRISPR systems in nature for genome editing and biotechnological exploitations.

Project Reference No. : C7035-20GF
Project Title : Low-dimensional perovskite materials for efficient and stable light emitting diodes: Materials, devices and fundamental understanding
Project Coordinator : Professor Choy Wallace Chik Ho
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Low-dimensional halide perovskite emitters including zero-dimensional quantum dots (QDs) and quasi two-dimensional (quasi-2D) perovskites with the advantages of quantum confinement effects have emerged as a novel class of revolutionary semiconductors with high color purity, wide color gamut, low cost and simple solution process for vivid natural-color yet cost-effective displays. However, perovskite materials commonly exhibit environmental instability due to humidity, light and/or elevated temperature significantly hindering their applications in light emitting diodes (LEDs) where reported lifetimes are commonly in the order of minutes. Furthermore, while blue, green, and red emitters are the primary components for display applications, the efficiency of blue emitters presently lags behind green/red emitters. Despite the daunting challenges, the properties of both classes of low-dimensional perovskite emitters are extremely sensitive to their compositions and synthesis conditions, which opens up potential pathways for enhancing both the photoluminescence quantum yield and environmental stability through designing the composition, structure and quality of the perovskites. Meanwhile, in order to achieve well performing and stable multilayer-structured perovskite LEDs (PeLEDs), present studies on materials of charge transport layers, interfacial engineering, and defect passivation are critical yet still inconclusive. Additionally, device physics, operation and degradation mechanisms are crucially important for both optimizing the device performances and understanding the deterioration of the performance over time to achieve the practical applications of PeLEDs. We propose to perform a comprehensively study of theoretical modeling and experimental analysis of PeLEDs covering materials, devices, and the underlying understanding of related physical processes. We aim to (1) fundamentally understand the relationship between low-dimensional perovskite synthesis and composition, nucleation, and the formation of non-radiative defects, (2) develop practical material synthesis approaches for highly luminescent and stable perovskite emitters, (3) establish device architectures yielding high performances in PeLEDs, (4) elucidate the relationship between the materials in multilayered structures and device performances, and (5) achieve state-of-art low-dimensional PeLEDs.

Project Reference No. : C7038-20GF
Project Title : Towards a comprehensive understanding of the performance of offshore wind turbine systems in complex environments
Project Coordinator : Professor Yang Jun
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Wind energy has emerged as a promising source of renewable energy that offers significant potential for long-term reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, offshore wind energy is an attractive option for economies with vast coastlines and dense populations including Hong Kong and China. The rapid growth of the offshore wind power industry across the world in recent years brings many new challenges to researchers and engineers. The principal objective of this proposed research is, using a multidisciplinary methodology involving soil dynamics, geotechnics, structural dynamics, aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, to develop a better understanding of the performance of offshore wind turbines in complex environments and the key mechanisms. The research will provide first-hand data, new models and insights valuable for the development of more cost-effective and safer designs. This research effort is the first of its kind in Hong Kong aiming to contribute to the offshore wind energy development from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Project Reference No. : C7047-20GF
Project Title : Optimizing Total Factor Sustainability of Tall Residential Buildings through Innovative Modular Integrated Construction
Project Coordinator : Professor Pan Wei
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Hong Kong (HK) is a metropolis of the highest population density having very limited developable land resources where building tall towers for housing is the norm. However, the HK construction industry is particularly labor and resource-intensive, with extremely high building costs and multifaceted environmental issues. It is both urgent and important to explore innovative technologies for delivering efficient and sustainable tall residential buildings in HK. Modular Integrated Construction (MiC) is such an innovative approach. However, despite the burgeoning interest in MiC, there is yet no established science of MiC for tall buildings, and there exist knowledge gaps in both the theory and methodology of MiC for sustainability-oriented structural design and materials use. This research addresses the fundamental question: “Can innovative MiC help to optimize the sustainability of tall residential buildings, and how?” This project has three objectives: (1) To create a new Total Factor Sustainability (TFS) concept for tall residential buildings which is based on the theory of system dialectics, construct a TFS measurement framework by integrating environmental, social and economic sustainability and stakeholder value, and establish a novel TFS methodology and index to be optimized using AI-based methods; (2) to establish the scientific fundamentals of innovative MiC in delivering sustainable tall residential buildings which enable innovations in the four aspects: structural design, structural materials, embodied carbon, and operational energy; (3) to develop and validate MiC engineering solutions for optimizing the TFS through laboratory testing and real-life project action research that maximizes the research impact. The project will be completed over a 36-month period in three interrelated stages for achieving the objectives.

CRF 2020/21 Collaborative Research Equipment Grant (CREG) Proposals

Project Reference No. : C4012-20EF
Project Title : Hong Kong’s Window on the Universe: Building a Pioneering Submillimetre Astronomical Camera
Project Coordinator : Professor Li Huabai
University : The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

We will build an astronomical camera to work with the Greenland Telescope (GLT). There are only three submillimeter telescopes larger than 10-meter worldwide including GLT. The camera will not only secure observing time for Hong Kong astronomers, but also be the first professional astronomical instrument led by Hong Kong from scratch. From ancient galaxies, Milky-way star formation to supernova remnants, the camera is a new window to explore a wide range of astronomical phenomena.

Project Reference No. : C4015-20EF
Project Title : Earth BioGenome Project: Hong Kong
Project Coordinator : Professor Hui Jerome Ho-lam
University : The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Understanding the biodiversity on Earth is more than just scientific interests, as it can also inform how to maximise the utilisation of its resources in a sustainable way. This is both scientifically and socially important. In terms of science, it will allow better fundamental understanding of the evolution and interactions of organisms on earth, and socially, it will allow new applications development as well as using the resources in a sustainable way.

The Earth BioGenome Project, which has been described as a moonshot project for biology, aims to sequence, catalogue, and analyse the genomes of all eukaryotes on Earth, including animals, fungi, and plants. Similar initiatives have already started in different parts of the world, including the Darwin Tree of Life Project in the United Kingdom, which aims to sequence all eukaryotes in the country in the first phase. Currently, researchers in Hong Kong are off the radar.

In this proposal, we propose to purchase a state-of-art genome sequencer, as well as forming a network of researchers from all universities in Hong Kong studying genomics and biodiversity. This is a crucial first step in order to establish the Hong Kong’s biodiversity genomic research hub, and to join forces with the Earth BioGenome Project.

The benefits of revealing the genomes of all animals, fungi, and plants in different parts in the world, including Hong Kong, will form an informative base to solve many current issues in the human society. Such benefits could range from increasing the understanding of how biodiversity is evolving under climate change, conservation of endangered species, provision of ecosystem services, to discovering of hidden biological knowledge for new technological inventions and development.

Project Reference No. : C4028-20EF
Project Title : An Integrated Measurement System for Quantum Information and Quantum Materials Research under Extreme Conditions
Project Coordinator : Professor Yang Sen
University : The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

It is widely believed that quantum technology will be the successor of its classical counterpart and become the pillar technology of the future. Powerful quantum sensors, quantum computers and quantum communication networks as well as the next generation electronics and optoelectronics made from new quantum materials will revolutionise every aspect of our life. To fully understand and explore the physics associated with these quantum materials and quantum phenomena, new instrumentation and research methodology have to be established. Extreme conditions like ultra-low temperatures and high magnetic fields are frequently required for the elimination of thermal noise and fluctuations to unravel the underlying intrinsic physics. This collaborative project aims to install the first integrated optical and electrical measurement platform operating at ultra-low temperatures (down to 0.01 Kelvin) with a built-in vector magnet. The project capitalises on the existing expertise of 10 active researchers across 4 universities. With this system, the researchers will be able to explore previously uncharted territories, uncover new physics and develop new technologies and form new collaborations in HK as well as worldwide.

Project Reference No. : C5045-20EF
Project Title : A super-resolution fluorescence microscopy platform for live-cell and animal-tissue imaging
Project Coordinator : Professor Leung Yun-chung
University : The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Layman Summary

Fluorescence microscopy has been an indispensable tool for research studies in life sciences or biomedical sciences. Samples are often fluorescently labelled and imaged with wide-field or confocal microscopy, both of which deliver image resolution of at best ~200 nanometers (nm). The development and subsequent availability of various super-resolution fluorescence microscopy techniques in the past decade has enabled researchers to perform sub-diffraction-limit (i.e., to overcome the 200 nm diffraction limit) imaging of ultrafine biological structures, down to tens of nanometres in size. Examples of these super-resolution microscopy techniques include structured illumination microscopy (SIM), stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (STORM) and stimulated emission depletion (STED) nanoscopy. Earlier super-resolution microscopes, including one that is available at the University Research Facility in Life Sciences (ULS) of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), suffer from some common problems that have hindered the detection of fluorescent signals and/or imaging of live and thick biological samples. For example, SIM only improves the resolution by a factor of two (to ~100-115 nm), and is known to introduce imaging artefacts in certain samples. STORM, on the other hand, is not compatible with living samples. In addition, both SIM and STORM is not suitable for imaging biological tissues or other thick samples. To address the pressing need to adopt super-resolution microscopy for live-cell and animal-tissue imaging, the acquisition of a new generation of STED microscope is being proposed. The proposed STED system is able to come around the abovementioned shortcomings by a few approaches, including the adoption of white-light laser to improve fluorescent dye compatibility, time-gated signal detection to improve lateral resolution, as well as the introduction of an additional depletion light path to improve axial resolution. These new features would allow the proposed STED system to fill an important gap between SIM and STORM, and allow researchers to perform live-cell (with resolution better than SIM) as well as animal-tissue (a sample type not compatible with STORM) super-resolution imaging. The system is versatile in that it will be able to support a wide spectrum of research groups working on research fields of great importance, including cell and cancer biology, as well as neuroscience and neurological diseases.

Project Reference No. : C6002-20EF
Project Title : A High-accuracy Wafer Polisher and Bonders for Heterogeneous Integration
Project Coordinator : Professor Poon Andrew Wing On
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

Heterogeneous integration is an advanced packaging technology involving numerous materials, processes, components and devices, to realize multi-functional systems on a single chip. This proposal aims to incorporate state-of-the-art equipment to establish a collaborative research platform for heterogeneous integration. The platform will require the acquisition of three pieces of synergistic processing equipment currently not available in Hong Kong: a high-uniformity chip/wafer polisher, a high-accuracy chip-to-chip/chip-to-wafer bonder and a high-force wafer-to-wafer bonder. The chip/wafer polisher will be used for surface chemical mechanical planarization and polishing before bonding, which is an essential step in heterogeneous integration. The chip-to-chip/chip-to-wafer bonder allows high-accuracy bonding (0.5-μm post-bonding) to be achieved. Notably, this device can upper-bond a chip as small as 0.5 × 0.5 mm. The wafer-to-wafer bonder operates with a high-bonding force of up to 100 kN at temperatures of up to 550°C. We envision that the acquisition of this proposed equipment will allow the development of a new class of high-performance heterogeneously integrated devices and systems for emerging applications in diverse research arenas and frontiers.

Project Reference No. : C6008-20EF
Project Title : A multifunctional correlative imaging and spectroscopy system for cross-disciplinary research at HKUST
Project Coordinator : Professor Chan Ho-bun
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

This projects aims to acquire a multifunctional correlative imaging and spectroscopy system for cross-disciplinary academic and industrial research in Hong Kong. By combining atomic force microscopy with infrared and/or Raman spectroscopy, this equipment is capable of analyzing chemical compositions with spatial resolution down to ~ 10 nm, which represents more than a factor of 100 in improvement compared with conventional optical techniques that are limited by diffraction. This instrument will enable chemical composition and physical property analysis at the nanoscale for materials ranging from two-dimensional materials and semiconductor nanowires to soft polymeric surfaces and biological structures. The acquisition of this instrument will greatly enhance materials analytical capabilities in Hong Kong, open new opportunities for cross-disciplinary research and provide training to students.

Project Reference No. : C6022-20EF
Project Title : The Indium-Rich Metal Jet: A Bright Dual Wavelength X-ray Source for S-XRD and SAXS
Project Coordinator : Professor Williams Ian Duncan
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

The Indium-Rich Metal Jet is a novel and bright dual-wavelength X-ray source that provides both soft and hard X-rays from bombarding a liquid metal alloy made of gallium and indium with an intense electron beam. The instrument will run single crystal diffraction (S-XRD) and solution scattering (SAXS) experiments simultaneously from its two outlet ports. These will yield detailed and complementary structural information of great value to the biological, chemical and materials sciences. The instrument will benefit academic scientists across Hong Kong who need to access the advantages provided by either the high brightness or special X-ray wavelengths of the Metal Jet. The instrument will have a minimum estimated lifetime of 10 years and be operated by experienced staff in a secure facility at HKUST.

Project Reference No. : C7034-20EF
Project Title : Mass cytometry, a multiplexed single-cell technology for chemical biology and precision medicine
Project Coordinator : Professor Sun Hongzhe
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

With the deepening of our research on life science, more and more single-cell information needs to be interpreted to help us better understand the key life process in biological system. “Precision medicine” is the inevitable trend in the new medical era which intend to find the personalized treatment programs. Mass cytometry is an emerging single cell technique with high throughput and highly multiplex capability, enabling the exploration of cellular and phenotypic diversity at the single-cell level. Compared with other conventional single cell techniques, e.g. flow cytometry, mass cytometry endows lower background and higher multiplex capability, which make it more advantageous for providing panoramic view of single cell. In view of the importance of early diagnosis and prognosis for cancer treatment, this project aims to set up mass cytometer (CyTOF)-based platform for precision medicine through accurate early diagnosis, precise prognosis and cancer classification. Moreover, the underlying mechanisms of cancer progression will also be explored through multiplex imaging of the tumor tissue. A data base to coordinate specific biomarkers to different types of cancers and cancer stages will be built to guide personalized treatment. The execution of this project will enhance multi-disciplinary research, including chemistry, medicine and biology, as well as help us to understand the cancer biology for discovery and invention of more efficient anticancer drugs.

One-off CRF exercise Group Research Proposals

Project Reference No. : C1105-20GF
Project Title : Reducing transmission of novel coronavirus and other infectious diseases using food waste-derived medical textiles via electrospinning for healthcare apparel and personal protective equipment
Project Coordinator : Dr. Lin Carol Sze Ki
University : The City University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Since the outbreak of Coronaviruses (COVID-19) pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) is in pressing need to reduce the risk of viral transmission in healthcare settings. Severe shortages in the global supply chain of PPE was observed due to an unprecedented surge in global demand. Moreover, massive increase of medical waste due to enforcement of infection control measures. Therefore, technology-integrated biorefineries focus on the material recovery approach to resolve the twin problems of the global waste burden and severe PPE storages is an evolving area where research and development is urgently needed.

The aim of this project is to develop food waste-derived non-woven medical textiles via electrospinning for healthcare apparel to limit the transmission of COVID-19. The proposed work signifies a new direction in the field of engineering hydrophobic surfaces with the combination of electrospinning and electrospraying techniques, and the use of biodegradable polymers derived from waste stream. In addition, environmental and economic impacts/benefits associated with this new sustainable bio-based medical textile production methodology will be evaluated.

Project Reference No. : C1115-20GF
Project Title : Hong Kong Insolvency and Restructuring Law and Policy in Times of COVID-19 and Beyond
Project Coordinator : Professor Wan Wai Yee
University : The City University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of insolvency filings is expected to rise significantly. While Hong Kong’s insolvency regime has served it well in the past crises, there is no assurance that it would continue to work in this crisis. This project will evaluate the effectiveness of the current insolvency and restructuring laws in rescuing otherwise economically viable businesses. Using law, political science, accounting and finance methods, we analyse the data to show the limitations of the existing framework, evaluate the costs of alternatives, and how responses to COVID-19 will shape insolvency and restructuring laws in Hong Kong in the longer run. Focusing on small and medium size enterprises (SMEs), we assess whether Hong Kong should adopt models of legislation based on a universal standstill on performance of commercial leases. The project promises high impact for the academic and policy communities in Hong Kong and the region.

Project Reference No. : C1134-20GF
Project Title : A novel vaccination strategy: using a microrobot platform for DNA vaccine delivery and antigen presentation
Project Coordinator : Professor Sun Dong
University : The City University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

We propose to develop a novel vaccination strategy applying a microrobot platform to achieve DNA vaccine delivery and antigen presentation. In traditional vaccination strategies, naked DNA and protein vaccines are easily degraded by serum nucleases and quickly lose their activity. By contrast, microrobots can condense and shelter DNA or protein vaccines for in vivo delivery. We will conduct this project in three aspects. First, we will develop hydrogel-based degradable microrobots by 3D laser lithography technology; these microrobots will feature several layers with different crosslinking levels to achieve sustained and controlled drug release. Second, we will functionalize two types of microrobots. One is a GelMA-PEI/DNA microrobot, which can quantitatively carry the DNA vaccine and transport it to antigen-presenting cells. The other is a GelMA-GNP/Ag microrobot, which employs gelatin nanoparticles as a carrier to deliver antigens directly to dendritic cells in lymph nodes following its degradation. Third, we will apply these functionalized microrobots to the preclinical testing of animals.

Project Reference No. : C1143-20GF
Project Title : Resilient PPE Supply Chains for Hong Kong Health Systems: Current and Post Covid-19 Pandemic
Project Coordinator : Professor Yan Houmin
University : The City University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

From the outbreak of COVID-19, in addition to developing vaccines, governments, international health organizations, and hospitals have all called for a strategic stockpiling of personal protection equipment (PPE). With a team of experts in supply chain management, demand forecasting, and public healthcare, we propose to develop resilient PPE supply chains for Hong Kong health systems aimed at treating PPE as a supply chain management matter rather than a procurement issue. We plan to start with a scenario-based PPE demand forecasting for scenarios of conventional, contingency, and crisis. Our second study concerns the PPE supply chain characterization and stress test with concepts of the time-to-recovery, the performance impact, and the time-to-survive. Our final task is to integrate both demand and supply sides of the study in order to provide data-driven predictive insights into the risk management of strategic PPE stockpiling, public policy making, and human capital development to combat future pandemics.

Project Reference No. : C2103-20GF
Project Title : Investigating entry and infection of the primary cilia and central nervous system by SARS-CoV2
Project Coordinator : Dr Hor Hong-huan Catherine
University : The Hong Kong Baptist University

Layman Summary

The coronavirus COVID19 pandemic has accumulated more than 100 million cases worldwide, causing the most critical health threat of our time. It has led to the greatest global healthcare and economic crisis in human history since World War II. The urgent need of a solution to halt the virus is indisputable. Understanding the cell entry mechanism of SARS-CoV-2 virus is instrumental for developing effective methods to halt viral infection and dissemination in the host body.

Recent clinical evidence has confirmed the entrance of SARS-CoV-2 virus into the human brain. Moreover, emerging evidence also unravels a broad spectrum of neurological impacts arising from SARS-CoV-2 infection. To date, the neurological damage directly linked to SARS-CoV-2 infection, or how the virus enters neurons remains poorly understood.

ACE2 is the first human host receptor known to bind by SARS-CoV-2 viral spike (S) protein for host cell entry. Recent study reported that Neuropilin 1 (NRP1) might enhance viral infectivity, acting as a cofactor. Interestingly, both ACE2 and Nrp1 express in neurons, and were found to be localized to primary cilium, a cell surface-protruded organelle important for sensing extracellular stimuli and signal transduction. These observations hinted at a possible role of primary cilium as a viral entry point. Here, we aim to investigate the entry and infection of the primary cilium, and the neurobiology of SARS-CoV-2 infection using a humanised mouse model that was modified to express human ACE2 receptors.

The completion of this project shall unearth novel insights on the neuropathogenesis and host entry mechanism of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Given that neuropathologies often lead to irreversible long-term consequences, understanding the neurobiology of SAR-CoV-2 infection is instrumental for early diagnosis, prevention and alleviation of undesirable neurological outcome in COVID19 cases, thereby reducing the long-term healthcare, society and economic burden arising from the immense COVID19 pandemic.

Project Reference No. : C4139-20GF
Project Title : Assessment and Implementation of Non-pharmaceutical Interventions to Avoid COVID-19 Resurgences: Accounting for Human Mobility, Contacts and Behavioral Change Using Both Big and Small Data
Project Coordinator : Professor Huang Bo
University : The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

This project aims to quantify the relationships among mobility, social contacts, non-pharmaceutical interventions and COVID-19 transmission under different levels of reopening. On this basis, we will assess various scenarios for containing future resurgences of COVID-19. This proposed project will ultimately provide a novel methodology by which spatial mobility and human behavioral data can be processed and analyzed to yield a more precise modeling of COVID-19 transmission, and strategies and evidence to guide COVID-19 interventions and preparedness across the world during the post-lockdown period.

Project Reference No. : C4158-20GF
Project Title : (Mis)communication, Trust, and Information Environments : A Comparative Study of the COVID-19 “Infodemics” in Four Chinese Societies
Project Coordinator : Professor Wei Ran
University : The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

A hallmark of the COVID-19 global pandemic is rising infodemics (Ali, 2020; Cinelli et al., 2020), which refers to “information epidemics” or “epidemics of rumors”—“the rapid dispersal of information of all kinds, including rumors, gossip, and unreliable information” spread “instantly and internationally” through communication technologies such as mobile phones, social media, and the Internet (World Health Organization, 2018). The “over-abundance of information” that makes it hard for the general public “to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it” (World Health Organization, 2020). Infodemics often appear to be mis, dis and mal-information. Like a virus itself, infodemics can cause public distrust, panic, and fear. This project aims to take a holistic approach to examine the emergence and spread of false and misleading information about the COVID-19 pandemic on digital media in four Chinese societies: Mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. It also explores how some widely diffused informedic messages on social media affect the publics’ perceived risks and measures taken to protect themselves. Methodologically, we combine big data analytics with social scientific research methods such as surveys and focus groups to explore, clarify, and theorize the dynamics of infodemic diffusion during the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes the dimensions of emergence, diffusion, and consequences. Based on the proposed model and empirical evidences, the deliverables of this project include (1) valuable and immediate policy suggestions to spot and contain infodemic messages at the early stage of a public health crisis; (2) a user-friendly online application to monitor future emerging infectious diseases; (3) policy recommendations for containing and countering the COVID-19 infodemics with correction messages.

Project Reference No. : C5108-20GF
Project Title : Effective Ventilation Strategies for Mitigating Infection Risks in Hospitals
Project Coordinator : Dr Mui Kwok-wai Horace
University : The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Layman Summary

Healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) impose excessive burden on existing healthcare systems. The outbreak of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic worldwide once again reminds us the potential threat of airborne transmission within a hospital. A number of viruses and bacteria are known to be spread by air, for example, Tuberculosis, influenza virus and SARS-CoV-1. Guidance for airborne precautions has been provided to healthcare workers (HCWs) taking care of patients with known or suspected viral infections. Nonetheless, risk of in-hospital airborne transmission remains if a patient with unidentified airborne infection of novel virus or asymptomatic infection of known airborne diseases is not handled correctly in General Human Occupied Areas (GHOAs) (i.e. general inpatient ward, outpatient clinic, accident and emergency (A&E) room and washrooms). Studies indicated ventilation systems in mechanically ventilated enclosure could improve virus removal capacity and energy efficiency, however, barely any study has addressed the temporal influence of infection risk, medical cost and energy consumption in respect of ventilation control parameters and airborne pathogen emission scenarios.

In this proposed study, computational modelling of expiratory droplet dispersion, transportation and deposition will be employed to evaluate the infection risk of various ventilation strategies in mechanically ventilated GHOAs. The fluid dynamics inside the drainage systems, the indoor dispersion from ingress of contaminated aerosols in washroom, the outdoor emission disposal of pathogenic bioaerosol from the ventilation stack and associated medical cost and energy impact will also be studied. Based on two respiratory viruses, namely SARS-CoV-2 and H1N1 influenza virus, exposure risks and an exposure assessment indicator will be developed. Moreover, annual energy consumption of different ventilation strategies will be calculated via a building energy simulation tool. By understanding the association between exposure risk and energy expenditure, strategic ventilation schemes for a general hospital area and washroom that could strike a balance between cross-infection risk (in terms of reduced medical cost) and energy consumption will be proposed to the hospital management.

Project Reference No. : C5110-20GF
Project Title : Multi-level synergistic COVID-19 point-of-care diagnostics based on upconversion luminescence biosensing platform
Project Coordinator : Professor Hao Jianhua
University : The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Layman Summary

Rapid and reliable testing for COVID-19 infection caused by SARS-CoV-2 is key to defend ourselves from the grave threats. Currently, sole diagnostic method cannot fully reflect all the information of infection. For instance, conventional nucleic acid testing cannot distinguish whether someone has been previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 but recovered. The antibody testing can be used to determine previous levels of COVID-19 viral exposure in the population and to assess the immune status of individuals after vaccination. However, serological tests based on detecting antibodies are not suitable for earliest diagnosis of the disease due to the slow pace of the human antibody response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Therefore, comprehensive and complementary multi-level diagnostics can provide more accurate diagnostics. This project will address the challenge of current COVID-19 diagnostics through the cooperative efforts of multidisciplinary team. We aim to provide multi-level synergistic diagnostics platform and reflect full spectrum of infected patients’ information for point-of-care diagnostics. The COVID-19 diagnostics platform will be designed and fabricated based on upconversion nanoparticle luminescence biosensing probes to realize multi-level analysis of characteristic genes, antigens and antibodies of SARS-CoV-2. The results will provide new insights into sensing technique for SARS-CoV-2 biomarker detection. The COVID-19 testing platform can offer rapid, low-cost, highly accurate early diagnosis scheme, which will be potentially to employ as a tool to guide clinical treatment, infection control and developing vaccine.

Project Reference No. : C6103-20GF
Project Title : Mitigation Strategies and Operations in Confronting Novel Infectious Disease
Project Coordinator : Professor Qi Xiangtong
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

In the past two decades, the world has been hit by several novel infectious diseases (NID), causing strain on the society and economy worldwide. The situation has been exacerbated by the nature of NIDs because effective medicines and vaccines are not immediately available upon an outbreak. As such, non-medical mitigation strategies play a vital role in containing the disease.

A pandemic typically undergoes three stages: 1) a limited number of cases in one location, 2) a large number of cases in one location, and 3) a large number of cases in multiple locations. Different mitigation strategies have been adopted to address the three stages. The operations efficiency in implementing these strategies requires the support of operations management study. Unfortunately, existing models on infectious disease mitigation have limitations in the application of NIDs. For example, some models require information that cannot be obtained for NIDs in their early stage, while others may lack managerial consideration with difficult-to-implement solutions. Moreover, connections between the mitigation solutions in the three stages are missing. Hence, we aim to address the aforementioned limitations and develop more efficient models to guide mitigation strategies.

In stage one, the limited number of cases allows for contact tracing and quarantine, which involves investigating the contacts of infected patients. Under time and resource constraints, we need to estimate the risk level of each contact to prioritize them for testing and quarantine. The difficulty arises from insufficient information on the NID, such as the infection and recovery rates. We will address this difficulty through robust optimization techniques, which allow us to handle the margin of error with given resources.

In stage two, individual tracing becomes impractical, and large-scale testing is critically needed. We can employ the epidemiology information obtained in stage one to arrange test schedules to increase the efficiency of testing operations and enable more efficient large-scale testing. The results of testing will provide more accurate information on the disease, which is important in other related decisions.

In stage three, locking down cities will be considered. However, the huge disruption caused by city lockdowns may deter decision-makers from locking down cities without sufficient justification to the public. To address this concern, we propose models and solution schemes for accountable decisions. We will also develop compensation mechanisms to coordinate lockdown decisions among cities.

Project Reference No. : C6107-20GF
Project Title : Large-scale Population Screening of Pooled Viral Nucleic Acid Samples Using Concurrent Isothermal Amplification and Electrochemical Detection for Novel Infectious Diseases on a Disposable Chip
Project Coordinator : Professor Hsing I-ming
University : The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Layman Summary

As learned through history and underlined by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, novel infectious disease prevention and control measures, such as contact tracing and physical isolation, have proven to be the most effective when they are enabled by timely and actionable detection of infected individuals. Nevertheless, the quick and uncontrolled spread of viral diseases has evinced the shortcomings of current nucleic acid-based infectious diseases diagnostic approaches. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based tests demand large economic and human resources. Moreover, they require costly and specialized equipment usually located at certified centralized testing centers not readily available in many geographic locations. Travel venues, such as airports and train stations, densely populated areas, and alarmingly growing infection clusters and resource-limited regions suffer the consequences of the abovementioned drawbacks, causing disease containment to become a daunting task. It has become clear that innovative and cost-effective diagnostic strategies are needed to translate molecular diagnosis into decentralized testing centers.

In this project, a two-fold improvement over current testing approaches will be developed to enable an integrated large-scale population screening strategy. First, we will develop an isothermal amplification reaction to prescind from thermal cycling and detect the presence of targets using electrochemical signals. This will allow simultaneous amplification and real-time signal readout in a one-pot reaction, avoiding risk of cross-contamination and the need for end-point detection subjected to current isothermal tests. Second, we will build a modular barcoding reaction that will allow us to identify a positive individual in a group of four pooled samples. This step aims to solve the main limitation of pooled testing, where samples from different individuals are tested in a single reaction, but individual re-testing will be necessary in the case of a positive pooled result.

Finally, owing to the robustness of the isothermal amplification reaction, the simplicity of electrochemical readouts, and the universality of a molecular barcoding strategy, these steps will be integrated into a sample-in, result-out device. Ultimately, our research outcome will help relieve the bottleneck of large-population testing by decentralizing accurate and reliable testing in a field-deployable, cost-effective, and timely manner.

Project Reference No. : C7105-20GF
Project Title : Leveraging Mobility and Digital Trace Big Data to Model COVID-19 Risk and Socio-Economic Recovery
Project Coordinator : Dr. Jia Shi Jayson
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

We propose to use big data analytics (using human movement data and other forms of digital data) to create new ways to study and model the spread of COVID-19 and risk across time, space, and networks, and to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on public health, the economy, and social wellbeing.

We have two tracks of interdisciplinary research: First, we build on our recent research experience to leverage human movement data to build a live risk-monitoring and early-warning system. In particular, this builds on the research methods and models of the Project Coordinator’s recently published paper in Nature (Jia et al. (2020); “Population Flow Drives Spatio-Temporal Distribution of COVID-19 in China”), which used aggregate geolocation data of the 11.4 million people who traveled through Wuhan in January 2020 to predict the spread and intensity of COVID-19 across China. Our “risk source model” based on mobility data explains 96% of the statistical variance of the spread and growth of COVID-19 in China. The model also generates a live community spread risk score for each city; practically this allowed advanced forecasting of which cities are stricken ahead of government announcements: Our methodology only requires representative mobility data and is robust to case reporting errors. We extend, enhance, and create new iterations of risk models in this project.

Second, we will use big data methods to study and quantify how COVID-19 affects economic activity, consumer and social behavior, market structure, and technological adoption. For example, we use human mobility and digital trace data as proxies for economic and consumer activity to more deeply understand digital substitution, transformation, and psychological coping behaviors during and after the pandemic. This has direct implications for economic and social recovery in the post-pandemic world.

Project Reference No. : C7123-20GF
Project Title : Superspreading of COVID-19: epidemiology and control
Project Coordinator : Professor Cowling Benjamin John
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

An important measure of the speed of spread of COVID-19, and the effectiveness of public health measures, is the transmissibility of infection. Transmissibility is typically measured by the reproductive number, which is the average number of secondary infections generated by an infected case. In the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the basic reproductive number was estimated to be in the range 2-3. However, this does not mean that each infected person will spread to 2-3 others. In fact, there can be quite considerable variability in the individual reproductive numbers. In our preliminary analysis in Hong Kong, we estimated that 70% of infected persons did not spread to anyone else, while a minority of 20% of infected individuals were responsible for approximately 80% of transmission events. This “super-spreading” phenomenon was also reported for SARS in 2003. Here, we propose to examine the degree to which superspreading occurs in COVID-19 in Hong Kong, using contact tracing data as well as genetic fingerprinting of viruses to identify chains of transmission in the community. We will also analyze aggregate data on transmission chains in mainland China and other locations for comparison. We will investigate how transmissibility changes over time, and estimate the effectiveness of various control measures. We will also investigate how overdispersion in the individual reproductive numbers (i.e. “superspreading”) varies over time, and between different locations. The overarching aim of our collaborative research program is to determine the transmission dynamics of COVID-19 and identify the optimal set of control measures which can keep COVID-19 transmission at a low level with as little disruption to society as possible. As COVID-19 vaccines are expected to become available in 2021, we will also have the opportunity to identify the impact of vaccination on transmission dynamics and superspreading.

Project Reference No. : C7129-20GF
Project Title : Impact of mask-use and social distancing during COVID-19 and NID pandemic on face and facial expression recognition
Project Coordinator : Dr. Hsiao Janet Hui-wen
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The abrupt change in social life due to social distancing and preventive mask use during the COVID-19 pandemic calls for urgent research on its impact on social cognition. In particular, misidentification of faces or facial expressions due to mask use can significantly interfere with social interaction and exacerbate socioemotional disorders, with far-reaching impact on mental health. However, there is virtually no research on this issue. Here we aim to fill this research gap, identify vulnerable populations, and provide possible remedial strategies though both computational modelling and human participant studies. Computational modelling is not constrained by the time required for observing developmental changes or participant availability, and thus is able to provide timely theoretical predictions. Here we will use a model that is able to simulate developmental changes in both eye movement pattern and perceptual representation in face processing through combining two machine learning methods, hidden Markov model and deep neural net. We will simultaneously conduct corresponding human studies and interventions with eye tracking so that any immediate result can efficiently inform each other for reducing adverse impact in time.

Specifically, we test the hypothesis that prolonged and widespread mask use and social distancing in a society will have differential impacts on individuals differ in perceptual style, age, culture, and traits in socioemotional disorders including autism and schizophrenia. Adults who have developed a nose-focused visual routine for face processing will have more difficulty than those with an eyes-focused routine in recognizing masked faces, particularly those with socioemotional disorders. Young children have not yet developed a consistent visual routine for face processing and thus may develop a suboptimal routine due to extensive exposure to masked faces. Since early learned stimuli are shown to be more important than late learned ones in shaping perceptual representations, widespread mask use may have irreversible impact on the development of face processing. For children, intervention such as optimal visual routine training and adequate exposure to regular faces may help maintain typical development for face processing during the pandemic.

The proposed research addresses an important research gap on how the pandemic can impact face and facial expression recognition abilities and possible remedial strategies. Our approach is highly interdisciplinary and multifaceted, from using state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms to provide theoretical foundations to front-line intervention. The model can be applied to other learning tasks or AI systems, further increasing its impact.

Project Reference No. : C7139-20GF
Project Title : Comparison of paediatric and adult responses to coronavirus infection – a molecular, cellular and tissue study
Project Coordinator : Professor Tam Paul Kwong Hang
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has so far infected over 1 billion people worldwide and more than 2 million patients have died. Despite concerted efforts, there is no sign of the pandemic slowing. Urgent efforts are thus needed to understand disease biology, to identify effective preventive strategies and to design optimal medical management. From the early period of the pandemic, an intriguing clinical observation was noted in that children were infected less frequently than adults, and constituting only 5% of all confirmed cases. Furthermore, the disease in children overall also seemed less severe. The question of why there are major differences between adult and children presents an important research opportunity for us to unravel. If we can understand the underlying reasons and mechanisms, we will be able to both improve treatment of severe COVID-19 children, and more importantly utilize the comparative knowledge about children and adults to help design better treatment pathways for adults and combat the pandemic of COVID-19 and other novel viruses in the future.In this project, we hypothesize that there are fundamental biological differences between children and adults, which result in differential response to COVID-19 infection.

Our multidisciplinary team with complementary expertise in different fields will focus our efforts on the paediatric population, utilising our established human 3D tissue organoid platform to study and compare paediatric and adult respiratory and intestinal tissues for disease modelling. We will further improve this platform by generating more advanced and physiological intestinal/respiratory organoids using multi-photon microfabrication technology platform (MMM), which can recapitulate the extracellular matrix (ECM) environment. Using these platforms, we will study SARS-CoV-2 kinetics, receptor/cell interaction, pathogenetic pathways, host response to viral infection/replication, and immune responses in children and adults; and screen/test for more effective antiviral and immune-regulatory therapies.

We are confident that our focused collaborative study will advance knowledge in COVID-19 research and result in significant biological findings which will be translatable for improved clinical strategies.

Project Reference No. : C7142-20GF
Project Title : Mechanism of inflammasome activation by SARS-CoV-2
Project Coordinator : Professor Jin Dong-Yan
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Proinflammatory cytokine storm is the culprit in pathogenesis of severe COVID-19. Activation of inflammasome is the root cause for the induction of cytokine storm. In this group research project, we will shed mechanistic light on inflammasome activation by SARS-CoV-2. We will perform functional screens to search for SARS-CoV-2-encoded modulators of inflammasome activation. This will be followed by mechanistic studies on selected SARS-CoV-2-encoded inflammasome activators and detailed comparative analysis of inflammasome activation by SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses in human and bat cells. Finally, to pave the avenue for further translational research, we will experimentally treat COVID-19 with inflammasome inhibitors in a hamster model. Our work will substantially advance the field by deriving new knowledge. Our findings will also have important implications in prevention and intervention of COVID-19. Particularly, identification and characterization of SARS-CoV-2-encoded inflammasome activators will impact future practice of medicine by revealing new strategies and agents for vaccine and antiviral development.

Project Reference No. : C7144-20GF
Project Title : Role of pangolins in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses in humans
Project Coordinator : Dr. Lam Tsan Yuk
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The animal origin of SARS-CoV-2 remains enigmatic, but the answer to this question is critical to prevent future emergence of zoonotic pathogens such as coronaviruses with pandemic potential as with COVID-19. While bats are natural reservoirs for coronaviruses, previous studies have identified SARS-CoV-2 related coronaviruses in the Malayan pangolins confiscated in China prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, implicating their potential role as intermediary hosts for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 from bats to humans. Malayan pangolins are an exotic species in China, smuggled into the country from regions of Southeast Asia where they are indigenous, raising the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 related viruses may circulate in the natural habitats of these animals, or along the trafficking route to China. Recent reports found the evidence for co-habitation of pangolins and bats in the same sleeping sites in the wild, supporting the hypothesis of virus exchange in nature. Furthermore, a novel zoonotic virus was identified from the ticks that parasitized pangolins, implicating the role of these animals in the emergence of other viruses with threats to humans. Notably, there is very limited research on the viral diversity and ecology of pangolins. Therefore, this collaborative project assembles a team of local and international ecologists, virologists, bioinformaticians and biochemists to conduct a multi-disciplinary study into the role of pangolins in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses in humans, from ecological to molecular levels. These research activities, including ecological field surveys, genomic analyses and functional studies, will synergistically provide comprehensive biological insights into the mechanism of pangolins in facilitating virus transfer from bats to humans through natural interaction, illegal trading and consumption. The study may shed light on the zoonotic origin of SARS-CoV-2 and help prevent future inter-species disease transmission and outbreaks in humans.

Project Reference No. : C7145-20GF
Project Title : Replication-defective SARS-CoV-2 mutant vaccines with abnormal codon usages
Project Coordinator : Professor Poon Leo Lit Man
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

We propose to make next generation COVID-19 vaccines. We will use two concepts to achieve this specific aim. First, we will make synthetic live-attenuated mutants that have thousands of silent mutations. Such attenuated mutants will have distinct codon usage biases, yet they can produce viral proteins that are 100% identical to those of wild type. Second, we will introduce atypical codons into selected open reading frames of SARS-CoV-2 genomes, thereby stopping the vaccine strain to make a subset of viral proteins. Mutants with these atypical codons are defective in virus replication in normal mammalian cells, but they can achieve productive virus replication in cells that are engineered to recognize these atypical codons for protein translation. By using and combining these 2 concepts, 3 different groups of codon mutants will be made and tested. It is believed that our approach can generate safe and genetically stable mutants of vaccine potential. In addition, unlike inactivated vaccines, our approach should be able to trigger both humoral and cell-mediated immune response against multiple viral antigens after vaccinations.

Project Reference No. : C7147-20GF
Project Title : Development of glycopeptide-based anti SARS-CoV-2 vaccines
Project Coordinator : Professor Li Xuechen
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Facing the outbreak and rapid spread of coronavirus disease in 2019 (COVID-19), vaccination is expected to offer an effective and massive means for global population protection. Different strategies are being tested for SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development, including gene-based vaccines, adenovirus vector vaccines and inactivated virus vaccines. At this stage, it is difficult to predict which vaccination strategy will be the most effective in the long term. It is still necessary to explore alternative strategies for vaccine development. Coronavirus infects host cell through attachment of viral spike protein RBD to the ACE2 receptor on the host cell. In this project, we aim to develop effective chemical synthesis methods and strategies to generate homogeneous spike protein RBD glycopeptides and their conjugates as the potential antigen for anti SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development.

Project Reference No. : C7149-20GF
Project Title : Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on Hong Kong children and support to families during crisis
Project Coordinator : Dr Ip Patrick
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has had a profound impact on all aspects of society. In particular, mental and physical health among children and adolescents is a growing concern and although social distancing measures are a necessity to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we are starting to observe their long term implications. The closure of schools and lack of social contact, to name but a few, likely have a profound effect on family life, impacting children’s development including their ability to learn as well as their, physical, psychosocial and mental well-being. Given these concerns during unprecedented times, it is essential that we create and implement easy, effective and efficient ways for parents to access healthcare, through comprehensive assessments of the physical and mental health of children and parents alike. This project proposes to do just that.

This project will combine and interlink three studies. The first of these will make use of existing cohorts with data collected before and during the pandemic comparing the change in both parent and children’s physical health, behaviour and mental well-being during the pandemic. Longitudinal follow up of these cohorts will enable us to understand the needs of children, particularly in relation to their mental health, during this pandemic and the risk factors for these but also the problems parents face in caring for these children under such difficult circumstances. Understanding the long term impact of the pandemic will enable us to design suitable policy, reallocate resources to those who need it most and educate professionals in how to deal with future disease outbreaks.

The second research study will examine the healthcare services use in the paediatric population. It will compare service utilisation rates, before and during the pandemic, assess the need for specific services and identify any gaps. This data will then be combined with the data collected in project 1 for an overarching look at general wellbeing and how this might be related to healthcare service utilisation. It will also compare this to the overall general use of services paying particular attention to the use of outpatient services for children with greater healthcare needs and the effect, the suspension of services has on the children’s and their parent’s physical and mental well-being. In turn, this should highlight the unmet needs of the population and particularly those in the most vulnerable situations.

These two sets of data will be combined and analysed thoroughly to help form an all in one, easy access, artificial intelligence (AI) platform. This service will ultimately stem from an extensive set of frequently asked questions formed from the background research in our previous studies. These questions and answers will be inputted into the AI chatbot and vigorously tested firstly by our team and then through previous cohorts and select members of the public. Over time the AI chatbot will learn to recognise questions and give tailored answers according to the information it has available. Anonymous data collected from the chatbot will also allow healthcare professionals an insight into the problems the general public are facing in their physical and mental well being and guide policymakers in the direction of health-related policy.

Project Reference No. : C7151-20GF
Project Title : Suicide Prevention During COVID-19
Project Coordinator : Professor Yip Paul Siu Fai
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has spread rapidly in many countries and the fallout from the pandemic is still unfolding. Social distancing is being enforced in many countries as an effective way of slowing down the spread COVID-19. This is the standard practice advocated by many health authorities around the globe including the World Health Organization (WHO, 2020). These measures include restricting movement outside the home of the general population, and reducing contact between those in public places. These measures are necessary to contain the disease. However, the fear of contracting the coronavirus and the disconnection and isolation arising from quarantine and other social distancing measures may have the unintended consequence of inducing loneliness, fear and panic in the community, especially among older citizens and those who may be vulnerable for other reasons. We need to be sensitive to those who are in quarantine or otherwise isolated and provide alternative means for them to connect with others in the midst of the pandemic. Hence the project is to understand the suicidal risk during COVID-19 with identification of risks and protective factors of suicide prevention. We aim to construct a timely surveillance system for monitoring social sentiment of the community based on the use of natural language processing, artificial intelligence and big data from social media. We like to develop evidence-based suicide prevention programs especially for the vulnerable, underserved and marginalized during quarantine periods. Furthermore, we shall work with the NGOs to develop a connected care model for helping the youth at risk. We shall develop a knowledge and resources hub and partnership with international bodies (e.g. World Health Organization and International Association of Suicide Prevention) for promoting good practice models for suicide prevention. The project will make Hong Kong to leading the way to promoting mental wellness during Covid-19, not only for the local community but to the global community as well.

Project Reference No. : C7154-20GF
Project Title : A multinational big data Covid-19 Epidemiological Study on post-infection Outcomes (ACESO)
Project Coordinator : Professor Wong Ian Chi Kei
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Layman’s Summary in English: COVID-19 has affected over 95 million people with over 2 million deaths worldwide (as of January 2021) and is associated with a wide range of acute severe adverse outcomes. However, medium-term (3-12 months since diagnosis) and long-term (beyond one year since diagnosis) outcomes remain unclear due to the novelty of the disease.

This research programme (ACESO) utilises four interconnected multinational projects to evaluate short-term, medium-term and long-term outcomes, with a focus on the latter two. ACESO encompasses seventeen de-identified healthcare/administrative databases from eleven countries/regions including HK, Asia-Pacific, Europe and the United States. Overall, these databases cover at least 213 million people and around 0.84 million confirmed COVID-19 cases (as of 25/06/2020). Project 1 examines the post-infection outcomes of COVID-19 patients, such as mortality, cardiovascular, respiratory, hepatic, immunological and neurological adverse outcomes, cancer, and healthcare resource utilisation. Project 2 identifies the risk factors associated with poor outcomes in patients diagnosed with COVID-19 and treatment patterns. Project 3 evaluates the effects of COVID-19 on mental health in the general population and vulnerable groups. Project 4 compares complications in pregnant women and adverse outcomes in children between mothers with COVID-19 and those without.

ACESO is likely to be the first HK-led international COVID-19 study utilising high quality healthcare databases. Our valid and reliable epidemiological studies will generate rapid responses to hypotheses from clinicians, aiding the development of clinical guidelines and rehabilitation programmes while informing educators and clinicians/policymakers about healthcare resource allocation and pandemic responses.

Project Reference No. : C7156-20GF
Project Title : Mechanism of immune control against COVID-19
Project Coordinator : Professor Chen Zhiwei
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the causative agent of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). COVID-19 has rapidly become one of the deadly human diseases since its discovery in December 2019, which has killed over 510,000 people while a total of over 10 million people have been infected by the end of June 2020 (WHO). Due to the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the world, one may ask why human immune responses are insufficient in controlling the early pathogenesis among severe patients and allow transmission of the virus by asymptomatically infected people. To find the answers, it is very important to conduct basic research by investigating how the immune system works in fighting COVID-19. For both vaccine and immune therapy, it is necessary to induce high levels of neutralizing antibodies and cytotoxic CD8+ T lymphocytes (CTL), which are key elements of host immune defense system. The overall objective of this proposed study, therefore, is to study how host immune system controls COVID-19. This proposal is based on our recent new discoveries on COVID-19. We found that there were significantly high levels of neutralizing antibody responses during acute phase of SARS-CoV-2 infection in intensive care unit (ICU) patients compared with mild cases. Furthermore, we found that acute SARS-CoV-2 infection damages dendritic cell and T cell responses. In particular, the unbalanced antibody and CD8 T cell responses are likely associated with disease severity. We, however, remain puzzled by the causes of our discoveries. In order to solve the puzzles, we hypothesize that unbalanced adaptive immune responses may have detrimental effects on acute COVID-19 patients. We, therefore, propose a focused and comprehensive study to investigate how immune system fights COVID-19 with three specific project aims: 1) To determine mechanism underlying rapid dysfunction of dendritic cells; 2) To determine the role of antibody-mediated acute lung injury; and 3) To determine T cell responses essential for cell-mediated immune protection. By conducting these studies, we hope to understand how human immune system fights COVID-1 effectively so that we can ultimately make significant contributions to the development of effective vaccine and passive immunization for SARS-CoV-2 prevention and immunotherapy.

Project Reference No. : C7162-20GF
Project Title : Hong Kong RECAP: A Systematic Response Strategy for Novel Infectious Disease Pandemic
Project Coordinator : Professor Shen Haipeng
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted public health and global economy. With many countries struggling with healthcare systems being overloaded by patients and reaching breaking points, it not only highlighted the importance of efficient and prompt response but also the need for strategic and long-term planning of healthcare systems and system-wide preparation to face such extreme cases. With local and national situations changing rapidly due to the unprecedented rate of spread, many hospitals are forced to make daily decisions on how to allocate their limited capacity (e.g., beds, ventilators, and medical staff) and manage patient flow within and across hospitals. We aim to develop a systematic data-driven response strategy to Novel Infectious Disease (NID) outbreaks: REsource allocation and CApacity Planning (RECAP). The strategy has both short term and long term benefits for heathcare institution administrators and policy makers in the fight against NIDs.

Project Reference No. : C7165-20GF
Project Title : Airborne virus harvesting, detection and diagnostics inspired by origin of life
Project Coordinator : Professor Shum Anderson Ho-Cheung
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly threatened the global economy and human welfare. The SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through respiratory droplets and contact, which have been well identified and controlled in most countries. Meanwhile, the airborne transmission of the virus is becoming a critical factor in future outbreaks. However, the study of the airborne virus is still underdeveloped – mainly due to the rare existence of the airborne virus and the inefficient sampling methods – which is considered a major challenge towards the full control of the outbreak.

Inspired by the mechanism of the origin of life, we propose to develop novel techniques for airborne coronavirus sampling, concentration, and detection. First, the airborne coronavirus will be sampled by condensation and concentration with aqueous two-phase system (ATPS)-based separation. Then, the existence of the enriched virus samples will be detected online by immunosorbent bioassay on flexible microfluidic systems. Moreover, the viral load of the sampled coronaviruses will be quantified at a single-virus level by droplet confinement and manipulations. Through the realization of these objectives, we will deliver ready-to-use prototype microchips for airborne virus sampling and enrichment, a flexible microfluidic system for virus fluorescence labeling and detection, a digital polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based high-sensitivity viral genome amplification and detection pipeline, and finally an integrated device for continuous droplet generation, sample incubation, and virus screening.

The proposed first-of-its-kind virus sampling techniques can achieve high efficiency and biocompatibility simultaneously, enabling the study of the airborne virus and hence boosting the understanding of the airborne virus transmission mechanisms and helping to monitor the airborne viruses in the community. Moreover, the proposed all aqueous two-phase system phase separation-based concentrated ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) provides a demonstration for the future path of airborne and extremely low concentration virus tests. In addition, the test devices based on the proposed method have high potential for development into standardized and commercialized portable devices towards population-based screening, which could play a significant role in preventing future epidemics and pandemics.

Project Reference No. : C7174-20GF
Project Title : Super Reality for Hands-on Online Education
Project Coordinator : Dr. Lau Henry Ying Kei
University : The University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

The outbreak of Covid-19 has affected educational systems worldwide. By the end of May 2020, there were 1,190,287,189 students affected worldwide because of school closures, which accounts for 68% of all enrolled students. Among all affected students, the greatest challenge is posed to those in science and engineering majors requiring doing hands-on experiments and projects. They no longer have access to their laboratories and experiments that are reliant on individual being present in a laboratory have been completely shut down. Remote teaching cannot fulfill the requirements for laboratory experiments. In order to meet the challenge, the researchers in the University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong and University of Glasgow propose to develop super reality, including haptic, audio, visual, temperature, and virtual reality, enabled on-line laboratories by utilizing telerobotics, smart data glove, virtual reality, and 5G communication, and integrate them into social networking services, to create an on-line community for cooperative hands-on teaching and learning. As a result, students at different locations will be able to work together as a team to learn subjects such as science, nano manufacturing and microelectronics by hands-on experimental studies. Furthermore, learning of science and engineering in the areas such as nanotechnology and microelectronics, particularly in the atomic or molecular level, may be greatly enhanced by allowing students to interact directly with objects in the domain, such as atoms and molecules. The remote instrumentation technologies integrated with super reality interfaces can enable the students to have access to expensive instruments and lead them towards deeper understanding of nano world. In addition, the proposed technologies will also enable students from various geographic and cultural settings to work or learn as a team. This will create a unique cooperative and culturally diverse working and learning environment regardless of limitations of places and local access. As a result, the impact of the infectious diseases such COVID-19 on education can be significantly mitigated.

Project Reference No. : C8105-20GF
Project Title : Protecting older people from loneliness during the coronavirus (Covid-19) and other novel infectious disease pandemic
Project Coordinator : Professor Chou Kee Lee
University : The Education University of Hong Kong

Layman Summary

Older adults are not only at a significantly higher risk of mortality and more difficult recovery following infection with COVID-19 and other novel infectious disease, but also face additional vulnerabilities, namely social isolation because of a range of non-pharmaceutical public health social distancing measures. Social isolation is likely to lead to loneliness and it is well-established that loneliness is associated with numerous detrimental consequences on psychological, physical, and cognitive health. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to develop an effective intervention to reduce loneliness among Hong Kong older adults. To reduce loneliness in older adults, we will examine the effectiveness of two different psychosocial interventions (i.e. telephone-delivered behavioral activation, and telephone-delivered mindfulness interventions) by comparing with telephone-delivered befriending intervention in a 3-arm randomized controlled trial (RCT) of community-dwelling older adults who are living in poverty, living alone and digitally excluded.