“The neurosystem is the most important organ in the human body, as it controls all movements and commands automatic responses. However, many neurodiseases have no cure yet, and therefore we need to find the causes of these diseases as well as their ultimate cures.”
It is the unrelenting quest for cures for untreatable diseases that led Ken Yung Kin Lam, the Ma Pak Leung Endowed Professor in Innovative Neuromedicine at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), to create a trove of impactful research studies on neurodegenerative diseases and innovative neuromedicine. In a teaching and research career spanning more than 20 years, Professor Yung has published more than 170 international journal articles in high impact SCI journals and won over 40 international and national invention and innovation awards for his discoveries. The honours include prestigious trophies such as Gold Medals from the International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva and the Gold Prize in the Technology Start-up Award under the Fifth Bank of China (HK) FITMI Achievement Award, to name but a few. Undoubtedly, Professor Yung has played a highly significant role in the field of neuroscience.
Always with a smile on his face, Professor Yung has appeared in many science programmes on local television, presenting understandable analyses on complicated scientific topics in his capacity as an expert. He was most well-known for a research study he led: a systematic meta-analysis on the association between air pollution and neurodegenerative diseases. The findings showed that whenever the level of PM2.5 hit danger levels, a higher incidence occurred of neurodiseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases in the city. His findings have garnered both territory-wide and international attention. The study, which was published in 2019, was recognised by the Web of Science as being the top 1% cited paper in the field within the first year of its publication.
Revolutionising Stem Cell Therapy
Professor Yung has all along been committed to finding the causes of and solutions for neurodegenerative diseases, among which his studies of Parkinson’s disease have been of prime importance. In Parkinson’s disease, the degeneration of the dopaminergic neurons is thought to play a critical role in the development of the disease, causing movement problems like involuntary shaking of the muscles and difficulty in balance and coordination. While current treatments cannot cure Parkinson's disease completely, stem cell therapy is one of the most promising potential treatments. It involves cultivating stem cells for differentiation into new and healthy cells, tissues or organs which can then be transplanted to the human body to replace damaged or dead cells.
Yet, treating the disease with this method posed formidable challenges because the use of animal embryos or other humans in stem cell therapy raises ethical issues, while the adoption of genetically engineered cells is known to entail risks of malignant transformation and tumour growth. "Conventional stem cell culturing techniques require a large number of additional growth factors in a culture medium. The chemicals used may stimulate the growth of cancer cells and increase the risk of developing tumours after transplantation to the human body. Besides, the brain‐like structures obtained from this method usually poorly resemble their counterparts in the brain. The efficiency of the conventional culturing techniques is considerably low as the process spans more than a month, which may lead to a higher risk of contamination."
In 2013, Professor Yung and his collaborators overcame these conventional hurdles and achieved major breakthroughs by reinventing stem cell technology with the integration of nanotechnology and neuroscience to safely harvest autologous neural stem cells from individual brains. "By using one’s own body parts to repair oneself, we managed to avoid some ethical and safety issues of stem cell therapy." This ground-breaking technology, the first of its kind in the scientific world, has gained more than 13 patents in China, the United States, Europe and Hong Kong.
Another discovery by Professor Yung and his collaborators that helped to propel Hong Kong’s neuroscience research onto the world stage was the application of inorganic nanomatrices. Known as nanomatrix technology, it is capable of transforming neural stem cells to mature functional neurons without using hazardous chemicals. It is achieved by inducing the rapid and specific differentiation of neural stem cells into miniature substantia nigra-like structures (mini-SNLSs), which mainly comprise dopaminergic neurons for replacing the damaged or degenerated cells in the substantia nigra in the brain. The nanomatrix consists of a silica plate coated with a nanostructure layer with a thickness of only 550 to 730 nm, on which trillions of nanozigzag structures on the surface help initiate the growth of neural stem cells into mini-SNLSs without the use of chemical growth factors.
Further laboratory tests showed that rats with Parkinson’s disease that were transplanted with the cultured mini-SNLSs that came with the nanozigzag matrix improved their condition with no tumour‐like characteristics. "The results showed that these mini-brain-like structures exhibited excellent survival and functionality in the brains of rats and resulted in the early and progressive improvement of Parkinson's disease in rats in vivo." This lays the foundation for research into stem cell therapies that may ultimately cure Parkinson's disease. "The technology revolutionises traditional cell culture methods into a safer, swifter and more efficient path for stem cell engineering." The technology has been awarded more than three patents in China, the United States and Hong Kong. "Integrating these two new technologies and the advancements in neural stem cell replacement therapy not only help to pave the way for translation and future human applications but bring new hope of curative treatments for patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases."
Advancing Traditional Chinese Medicine with Evidence-Based Research
Professor Yung’s outstanding achievements, as testified by his groundbreaking discovery in neuroscience and his seminal contributions to the academic field, are beyond dispute. In 2022, he was named the inaugural holder of the Ma Pak Leung Endowed Professorship in Innovative Neuromedicine, the highest honour that the University can confer upon academics. "I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to Ma Pak Leung Company for their generous support in the establishment of the endowed professorship, which enabled HKBU to continue its teaching and research endeavours. I think the endowment is truly a meaningful one, it enabled us to explore further studies in neuroscience and allowed our young scientists to continue their research for the benefit of humankind."
In fact, the brand Ma Pak Leung, a drug manufacturer with 200 years of specialising in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), was no stranger to Professor Yung. In 2021, Professor Yung and his team were commissioned by the company to conduct a study of An-Gong-Niu-Huang Wan (AGNHW), a classic TCM prescription. The investigation found that administering the prescription in rats with ischemic stroke was capable of reducing the level of brain damage. The findings bring hope that AGNHW can effectively prevent strokes in humans. "These over-the-counter TCM remedies had been here for centuries, but we had no idea about the underlying mechanism. Now, we can identify the factors that make it work through scientific research and provide data to support the claims. I think science can serve the purpose of TCM and they can complement each other."
Professor Yung’s engagement with TCM has not been confined to the subject of neurodegenerative diseases. He has collaborated with the Southern Medical University in Guangzhou to study the potential use of the medicinal herb Gou Ten, or Ramulus Uncariae cum Uncis, as a treatment option to alleviate cravings or suppress dependency on psychotropic substances like Methamphetamine, Ketamine or Methcathinone. "Drug addiction is similar to neurodegenerative diseases in the sense that it is a kind of brain disorder, although such a disorder is mostly self-inflicted. Our focus is on reversing the condition and putting drug addiction under control."
Advocating the Development of Biotechnology
Aside from his work at HKBU, Professor Yung also serves as the Chairman of OPER Technology Company Limited, a spin-off from HKBU which he co-founded with his student Dr. Cathy Lui. Established to commercialise and make practical use of the academic research findings on nanomaterial-based technologies, the company garnered a string of awards, including The Red Herring Top 100 Global Award, in recognition of their innovative and cutting-edge technology that can contribute to the betterment of mankind.
Despite the success the company has achieved since its inception in 2014, Professor Yung said it was no easy task to turn the research findings into products for the market. "In terms of the developments in biotechnology research, particularly drug discovery, therapeutic methods and testing methods, Hong Kong has fared quite well, but for a research finding to move from bench to bedside, the process can be painstakingly long and tedious. There are some barriers we need to overcome. For example, due to the limited number of patients in Hong Kong, we had difficulty securing enough patients for Phase III clinical trials, which often require a large number of patients. Although the Greater Bay Area has a population of more than 80 million, the problem is that we don’t have the same standards and criteria for clinical trials." Professor Yung called on the Government to consider setting up a single regulatory body to oversee the vetting and approval of clinical trials and drugs in the Greater Bay Area. "Policy support is crucial to the development of biotechnology in Hong Kong."
A Passion for Neuroscience and a Better World
In the 1990s, when Hong Kong was thriving as an Asian financial hub, all eyes were on the banking sector, with people aspiring to enter the field and students clamouring to study related subjects like economics, accounting or finance. Looking back at when he was a student of biology at HKBU in the 1990s, Professor Yung said far too little attention was paid to science. "At that time, given the lack of a supportive environment and atmosphere for scientific research, Hong Kong in no way could be a breeding ground for great scientists."
Although the road ahead was not clear, Professor Yung followed his heart. "In the end I still chose to study Biology because it has always been a very interesting and intriguing topic for me, as there are so many myths surrounding the issue of how the body actually functions. In my final year at HKBU, I did an independent study on melatonin, and it was such an eye-opening experience that I started to make neuroscience my topic of research."
Professor Yung pointed out that a cure had yet to be found for these neurodiseases, which led him to search for an answer. "The nervous system is the most important organ in the human body, it defines who we are and what we do. If anything goes wrong with the brain, it will have a debilitating effect on one’s body and mind. Even though scientists all over the world have been conducting research on neurodiseases, and research on neurodegenerative diseases has a history of over a hundred years, very little is known about how the brain works and the causes behind neurodiseases. A lot of neurodiseases, like Alzheimer’s diseases, have no cure yet. The subject is particularly significant given that the world is facing a rapidly ageing population and therefore a higher incidence of neurodiseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. So we need to find the ultimate treatment and cure for these diseases."
It is this mission that led Professor Yung to pursue his further studies after graduation at HKBU, earning a PhD degree in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford before joining the Faculty of Biology at his alma mater, where he embarked on an illustrious teaching and research career.
Passing the Torch of Scientific Research with Interactive Creativity
"Times have changed, and now we have more support like research funding and matching grants, and the Government also encourages scientific research. Back then, HKBU was more a teaching institution, but now it has become a University that places greater emphasis on research. It is a small world here where everyone knows each other, so it is much easier to foster a culture of transdisciplinary collaboration and research. Talents and resources are what matter to scientific research. If we have both, we are equally capable of doing great research and gaining an edge even if our size may not be comparable to other universities."
Over the years, HKBU had nurtured a number of top scientists with international standing like Professor Yung. His student Professor Cathy Lui, who co-founded OPER Technology with him, became one of the most celebrated scientists in Hong Kong. As an educator, what does it take to nurture a new generation of scientists? "To be a successful scientist, it all depends on one’s own talent and hard work. I don’t think teaching in the style of an authoritarian works any more," he said with a grin.
Professor Yung added that communication works best, whether for teaching or scientific research: "In the digital age, it’s easy to communicate with our collaborators and students at any place, any time. Whenever an idea comes up, we can discuss, brainstorm and inspire each other instantly through the app, without any consideration of formalities. This is how we maintain our creativity through interaction. And with the support of artificial intelligence and push-messaging, we are kept informed of the latest research without having the burden of looking for the materials. The world is getting much faster and easier, but we need to work harder for innovation."