Rising cancer rates and a dire shortage of blood and organ donors are among Hong Kong’s big health care problems, and the arrival of one of China’s best research centres is expected to provide solutions.
The Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health is due to establish a full-scale branch at Hong Kong’s Science Park, bringing much-needed staff and funding to boost stem cell research in the city, local scientists say.
Stem cells, extracted from bone marrow, blood or fat, can develop into different cells and are thought to be able to replace diseased or damaged tissue. For example, researchers are studying how these cells can generate other cells, such as red blood cells or cells that can kill cancer.
The institute is one of two state-backed laboratories from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences that are coming to the city. It is part of Beijing’s stated commitment to boost innovation and technology, forming Hong Kong, Macau and nine Guangdong cities into a “Greater Bay Area” powerhouse rivalling Silicon Valley.
The second lab is the Institute of Automation, which specialises in artificial intelligence.
Six of the city’s universities had already been collaborating with the two labs on different projects.
Renowned chemist Andy Hor Tzi-sum, the University of Hong Kong’s vice-president for research, said HKU and the Guangzhou biomedicine institute had a joint stem cell research centre at the university, one of its five lab collaborations with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
But the new labs would be game changers.
“They have their physical infrastructure, core facilities ... with dedicated manpower and committed research funding,” Hor said.
“So with all these coming to it, we can do very big things.”
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s Innovation and Technology Bureau said: “[The labs’] scope and quantity of research will be much larger, they will facilitate the transfer and transformation of research outcomes, and they will include nurture of research talents in their mission.”
HKU biomedical scientist Liu Pengtao said he hoped to benefit, as there were not many facilities for research on large animals in Hong Kong, in contrast with the Guangzhou institute.
“[The institute is] quite aggressive in pushing the technology, and they have excellent facilities and capabilities in using ... large animals, for example pigs [for research],” Liu said.
We would like to generate useful human cells [such as] functional red blood cells for transfusion ... and cancer-killing cells
Liu Pengtao, HKU
Before coming to Hong Kong earlier this year, Liu and his team at Cambridge University entered what he described as uncharted territory – they developed a “super stem cell” from pigs and human cells, capable of developing a wider range of other human cells and addressing some of the world’s most pressing medical problems.
“We would like to generate useful human cells [such as] functional red blood cells for transfusion ... and cancer-killing cells,” he said.
With more research, including work on animals, super cells could potentially be used to grow humanised organs in animals, for transplanting into patients. Other uses of stem cell research include studying pregnancy complications and even preserving endangered species, he said.
According to the latest figures, the number of new cancer cases in Hong Kong rose by 2.4 per cent year on year to a historic high of 30,318 in 2015, which corresponds with the rate of growth in the city’s over-65 population.
Hong Kong has one of the lowest blood and organ donation rates in the developed world.
At Chinese University, stem cell professor Feng Bo said the Guangzhou institute had lots of people working on different kinds of stem cells and this would boost Hong Kong’s expertise in the area.
However, Hor said that while cross-border collaboration would help, the onus was still on the Hong Kong government to boost research and development by setting aside more space and funding.
“The living and housing cost here is way too high ... it's extremely difficult for [academics] to settle down in Hong Kong, and this is why we are losing our competitiveness,” he said, calling for the government to boost research and development funding so it becomes more than the promised 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2022.
"[Also,] for years the research funding in Hong Kong in terms of GDP is 0.7/0.6 per cent, [it’s] very pathetic.”
Hor lamented that while “big grants” in the mainland and abroad had allowed scientists to focus on research, Hong Kong professors “now spend a lot of time writing proposals and reports” to get more funds.
He urged local universities not to forget their mission “to produce and nurture future talents”.
Professor Fung Kwok-pui, associate director of Chinese University’s school of biomedical sciences, agreed, pointing to the university’s biomedical science bachelor’s degree programme, which seeks to equip students for three career paths – research, entrepreneurship and health services.
“Undergraduate [education] is important ... and our training is not just for basic research. We have also prepared for some students to start their own businesses or laboratory management,” Fung said.
When the two institutes open, they will join other world-renowned labs such as Institut Pasteur from France, as new members of the park, which is currently home to the Hong Kong branch of Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet. The city’s government had earmarked HK$10 billion for the science park to attract the world’s best to Hong Kong, to work on health care technology and AI projects with local universities and scientific research institutions.
A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation said: “The establishment of the research centres in Hong Kong will definitely facilitate research achievements as there will be extensive exchange of innovative ideas among the mainland and [Hong Kong and Macau].”