Strategic Research Areas

The Faculty’s Strategic Research Areas explicitly break down boundaries, open up new domains of discovery, and promote cross-disciplinary investigation and collaboration.  Over the years we have developed specific core competencies, which are consolidated into the following Strategic Research Areas that build on our strengths and promote collaboration across disciplines.

Ageing

Scientists in this area strive to identify, treat and manage age-related diseases and have made important breakthroughs relating to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease. Their work covers three main programme areas:

Cardiometabolic research on ageing concerns research into cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Our researchers have identified novel biomarkers of cardiometabolic diseases and inspired hundreds of follow-up studies in the field. They have also been conducting long-term studies of these diseases in populations in southern China and Hong Kong. In the coming years, they will investigate hormones with diagnostic and therapeutic potential and continue to develop their long-term studies and use the databases to inform further research.

Psychosocial research on ageing considers issues in the care of dementia patients and those requiring long-term support. Three projects are planned. One will test the effectiveness of applying a U.S.-based support programme to dementia caregivers in Hong Kong. Another will collect data from long-term care facilities to see how care can be improved and resources best utilised. The third project will test the use of a smartphone application to raise awareness about chronic age-related illnesses in the general population.

HKU Alzheimer's Disease Research Network was formed in 2008 and has resulted in the identification of biomarkers for the progression of Alzheimer's disease, such as a link between the disease and testosterone levels in men. Attention is now turning to combinations of blood, spinal fluid and neuroimaging biomarkers to identify which are the most effective in detecting Alzheimer's disease, and to evaluating the psycho-social impacts on caregivers of Alzheimer's patients.

Related major work includes a project on 'Personalized Medicine for Cardiovascular Diseases: From Genomic Testing and Biomarkers to Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Platform' (Theme-based Research Scheme project) and a Partner State Key Laboratory of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, focusing on diabetes and obesity.

Cancer

Our cancer researchers focus on identifying and tracking cancer genetics and stem cells, and exploring the role of psychosocial aspects in cancer care and progression. They have produced important research on a wide spectrum of cancers, such as liver cancer, stomach cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, leukaemia, esophageal cancer and breast cancer.

Three key areas have been identified for investigation:

Cancer genetics and biomarkers
Research into the genetic basis of cancer development can improve our understanding of how tumours form and how to detect and treat them.

Imaging and cancer stem cells
The role of cancer stem cells in the development and progression of tumours is still not fully understood. HKU has an array of imaging technologies and capabilities that can help improve understanding of the biochemistry and behaviour of these cells.

Psychosocial oncology
This is a new focus for this Strategic Research Area and will concentrate on studying the effectiveness of psycho-behavioural intervention in cancer prevention and care. It will draw on existing research strengths in integrative care, Traditional Chinese Medicine and social sciences, as well as medicine.

Related major work includes a Partner State Key Laboratory for Liver Research and the Center for Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma Research (Areas of Excellence project).

Development and Reproduction

Researchers in this field are working at the cutting edge to identify the genes and mechanisms that control development and reproductive health, and the underlying causes of congenital and degenerative conditions, to help improve quality of life for humankind.  Their focuses are on five main areas: developmental and functional genomics, reproduction, stem cells and regenerative medicine, genetics of disorders, and enabling technologies.

They have established internationally recognised collaborative programmes, contributing to the discovery of the genetic bases of developmental and degenerative disorders, such as those affecting the skeletal system and the neural crest (a stem cell disorder affecting foetal development); and in reproductive medicine, providing advances in prenatal diagnoses of genetic disorders and insights into the regulation of fertility. They are also developing biomaterials and improving imaging and other technologies.

Through evolving research collaborations, scientists are also participating in international research consortia with world-renowned experts and have secured important research grants for projects on unravelling how genomic variation affects people's risk of developing skeletal and lumbar disc disease, on the mechanisms of ageing and of innate immunity, and on the application of synthetic biology for the treatment of cancer.

Related major work includes group research projects on Developmental Genomics and Skeletal Research (Areas of Excellence project) and 'Functional Analyses of How Genomic Variation Affects Personal Risk for Degenerative Skeletal Disorders' (Theme-based Research Scheme project).

Infection and Immunology

Scientists in this field have reported internationally significant findings on infectious diseases over the past decade. They traced the origin of the SARS coronavirus to horseshoe bats, identified 22 other novel coronaviruses, and discovered more than 40 other novel viruses in animals that could have implications for human health.  The following areas are their research focus:

Viruses
Our scientists are working on genomic and metagenomic studies to help explain the origin and interspecies transmission (animal-to-animal and animal-to-human) of new and emerging viruses from the animal kingdom.

Fungi
Work is proceeding on the fungus Penicillium marneffei, which can cause respiratory, skin and other complications in patients with compromised immune systems, often with fatal results. Our scientists have published the genome sequence and other findings on Penicillium marneffei and are investigating its virulence properties and the possible role of microRNAs in regulating its gene expression.

Crunching the data
New technology has made available huge amounts of data about how a microbial community affects disease. Our scientists aim to develop software tools to help in the analysis and understanding of this information.

Microbial chemical genetics
Chemical genetics has been applied at HKU to identify and characterise a small molecule compound that inhibits the cellular trafficking of influenza A virus nucleoprotein. Further studies will target this compound and modulate the virulence of the virus. The chemical genetic approach is also being extended to bacterial virulence, with a focus on Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is resistant to most antibiotics.

Related major work includes a Partner State Key Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Public Health

We are committed to multi-disciplinary research with the aim of controlling the double disease burden from both communicable and non-communicable diseases. Our four themes are: epidemiology and control of infectious diseases and environmental hazards; impacts of lifestyle, lifecourse and molecular determinants in chronic conditions; health services, systems and policy research; and behavioural medicine and well-being.

The recent achievements in public health include research projects on tobacco control which provided strong evidence for stringent legislation to ban smoking in public spaces and for increasing tobacco tax in Hong Kong. We have two decades of experience in studying air pollution. Other research projects include the study of influenza, the establishment of the “Children of 1997” Hong Kong Birth Cohort Study, the Guangzhou Biobank Cohort Study, and the citywide research project titled “FAMILY: A Jockey Club Initiative for a Harmonious Society”. The Public Health Research Centre has also been very successful in obtaining large grants from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health and Research Fund for the Control of Infectious Diseases to study influenza in the community.

Related major work includes an Area of Excellence on Control of Pandemic and Inter-Pandemic Influenza and a Partner State Key Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases.