Scientific research conducted at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) has garnered numerous awards in international competitions in recent years. Professor Gary Wong Ka Leung, Head of the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Science, is among those honoured to have gained two awards at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva. Professor Wong is a leading figure in the field of lanthanide-based complexes and materials used for fundamental photochemistry, spectroscopy, and bio-imaging applications. In 2015, he received the Junior Award from the European Rare-Earth and Actinide Society, the first such awardee in Asia’s universities. What’s more, his research continues to make breakthroughs, applying new technologies to cancer diagnosis and treatment. He is also dedicated to the practical application of his scientific and technical research and has established a company to carry it forward, exhibiting a scientist’s dedication to bringing benefit to people through research. Hence, Professor Wong is richly deserved of HKBU’s newly appointed Endowed Professorship – the Dr. Mok Man Hung Endowed Professor in Chemistry.
Revolutionary research for prostate cancer diagnosis
Professor Wong’s research facilitates the prompt diagnosis of prostate cancer, dubbed "Men’s Fatal Disease". This cancer is the second most common cancer in men worldwide, with more than 1.4 million new cases diagnosed each year. Statistics from the Department of Health revealed that prostate cancer is ranked as the third most common cancer in Hong Kong, with over 2,500 new cases each year and with incidence of the disease climbing the fastest in the decade from 2009. Since there are no obvious symptoms of the disease in its early stage, more than half of the patients are diagnosed at the middle to late stage, which affects the effectiveness of therapies. Therefore, early diagnosis can considerably enhance the efficacy of treatment. Professor Wong’s research team developed a revolutionary technique that requires only a urine sample from the patient for testing. "When compared with traditional testing methods like rectal or blood testing, such a non-invasive testing approach is convenient, quick and accurate. The invention represents a substantial advancement in the local diagnosis of prostate cancer." This patented test is now available in private clinics and it is planning to make it available in public hospitals in the future.
Professor Wong’s research team was able to develop this new technology successfully since they found that the concentration of urinary polyamines in human urine is closely related to the risk of prostate cancer. They first developed an aptasensor capable of detecting urinary polyamine in liquid and then used this sensor to develop a highly sensitive complex to accurately detect the concentration of urinary polyamine in urine samples, thereby diagnosing the risk of those tested getting prostate cancer.
Professor Wong explained why he is dedicated to his research on prostate cancer diagnosis, "The traditional way of diagnosing prostate cancer was in the form of the digital rectal examination which caused embarrassment and pain to patients. Asian men generally do not speak out when they feel unwell, putting them off immediate medical treatments." Professor Wong’s new inspection method is highly accurate and avoids unnecessary biopsies for patients, thereby reducing their concerns; and its convenience enables patients to undertake regular checkups and result in early diagnosis.
Encouraging men to have regular checkups for better health
Most women are aware of the importance of regular checkups to prevent breast and cervical cancer. In recent years, an annual global event Movember puts men’s health in the spotlight by raising awareness of men’s health issues, in particular prostate cancer. New Life Medicine Technology Company Limited, an HKBU technology spin-off company setup by Professor Wong, participated in this event by offering urine evaluation of prostate cancer risk. "We encourage men to conduct this test annually and if they are found to be at high risk, they can visit urologists for early identification of prostate cancer." The research has been patented in various countries and is planned to expand gradually to Japan and mainland China. A research centre has been established in the Greater Bay Area.
Innovative approach to treating EBV-related cancers
Additional remarkable research by Professor Wong is also cancer-related. He led his team to develop a next-generation treatment for cancers associated with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a human herpes virus that spreads through close person-to-person contact. EBV is in nearly 95% of the world’s population and is a culprit in several types of cancer such as nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). This virus is highly prevalent in Hong Kong and southern China, and associated with about 200,000 cancer cases each year. However, Professor Wong pointed out that most people are unaware of the virus, making it easy to be overlooked by doctors and researchers. "Our newly developed EBV-targeted therapy can focus on this dormant virus and strike first before it suddenly induces cancer growth," he explained.
The novel drug with a peptide created by Professor Wong’s team is the first known drug to have successfully inhibited two EBV-specific viral proteins, LMP1 and EBNA1. Both proteins, when allowed to combine, can multiply and eventually lead to tumours. This research has been published in international journals. In addition to preventing diseases, the new treatment can aid late-stage EBV-related cancers. The research team tested the new drug in an animal model by injecting it into mice with NPC tumours and discovered that even a low drug dosage could reduce the NPC tumour size by half. "The experimental results are good indicators that prove the drug’s efficacy and safety. Since this is the first example of simultaneous imaging and inhibition of two EBV viral proteins, it can serve as a blueprint for a next-generation drug for the safe monitoring and treatment of a specific cancer," said Professor Wong.
He has also invented the "Lanthanide Toolbox", a new medical imaging reagent that can detect Joubert syndrome and other genetic disorders that come under an emerging class of disorders called Ciliopathies. The invention clinched the Gold Medal in the Medicine Category, International Innovation Award of the Polish Academy of Science Institute of Genetics and Animal Breeding (Special Medal), as well as the Prize of the Malaysian Association of Research Scientists at the International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva. Another research project led by Professor Wong and conducted in collaboration with Dr. Lung Hong Lok, Assistant Professor of the Department of Chemistry, Professor Mak Nai Ki, Professor of the Department of Biology, and Dr. Law Ga Lai, Associate Professor, Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, was titled "The design, fundamental research and biological applications of fluorescent small molecules". The team developed a series of fluorescent small molecules with new special functions, resulting in important application prospects in a number of popular research fields such as medical imaging and diagnosis. The project won a second-class award in Natural Science at the Ministry of Education’s Higher Education Outstanding Scientific Research Output Awards 2020 (Science and Technology).
Conducting research is like playing hide-and-seek
Professor Wong’s research directs towards bio-imaging and medical imaging. He explained that he has been fascinated by fluorescence spectroscopy ever since he was at university. "Our bodies contain countless molecules and each has its own function. For example, everyone knows red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen around your body and white blood cells are responsible for protecting our body from diseases. Some of the molecules have the potential to cause cancers. It is important for us to be aware of their existence and treat them as early as possible. That’s where fluorescent spectroscopy comes into play." He explained that not every molecule emits light, but scientists can find or design fluorescent molecules to specifically attach to the ones they are interested in and allow them to visualize where they are. "We must first identify molecules by fluorescence, and once we can see them, our chances of catching them become much higher. Trying to track down these one-of-a-kind molecules is like decoding and playing hide-and-seek! I thoroughly enjoyed the process of deciphering the spectrum."
Professor Wong has worked tirelessly to promote scientific research development. In addition to thanking his family for their support, he is motivated by the fact that "The biggest impetus for doing research is that some of our breakthrough discoveries will help in early diagnosis of cancer and improve the standard of cancer treatment, not only benefiting society but also ensuring that science is applied to shape human lives."
Looking ahead, Professor Wong said he will continue to advance the research of bio-imaging. He described that bio-imaging in medicine is like the "demon-spotting mirror" of diseases. Chemical elements, including probe compounds or molecules, can be used for disease imaging and diagnosis. There is still much room for improvement in this field, "First and foremost, we will continue to seek imaging probes with excellent imaging capabilities, say, whether the fluorescent probes can be brighter and have higher contrast. Second, we will pursue probes with better sensitivity and accuracy, which is the biggest challenge ever." He went on to say that identifying a particular molecule is relatively easy, but the challenge is to avoid other factors interfering with these molecules and causing errors. "There are no short cuts in doing research. Our team will use all kinds of tools to determine the accuracy of molecule detection, such as by calculations, estimations, literature search and trial and error, for the ultimate solution. If you are willing to put in the effort, perhaps luck is on your side." Professor Wong stated that when conducting research, he often partners with biologists to design probes specific to certain disease markers to prevent misleading results. Aside from that, Professor Wong emphasised the importance of probe safety. "Imaging probes are external compounds injected into our bodies, and it is vital that these compounds do not pose any health risks when they work, or else there’s no point to use these screening tools."
Devotion to research and caring for students
Professor Wong smiled when he shared that, besides reading papers, his after-dinner hobby is watching football. Professor Wong is an avid football fan, staying up all night watching football matches on TV. Seeing his beloved Premier League team Everton surviving their relegation scare to secure a place in the next Premier League is enough to keep him pleased for a long time. He sees parallels between football games and management teams, saying, "As the department head and the leader of the research team, personnel management is a big challenge because of the background differences of the teammates and the big lesson of working with various individuals. As a football fan, though, the excitement of witnessing the players win a game or receive a trophy reminds me that in addition to teamwork, passion is crucial to success."
Speaking of enthusiasm, the Endowed Professorship that Professor Wong secured is the result of the wholehearted support of HKBU’s alumni and friends. To advance HKBU’s academic standards and stature in chemistry, the Baptist Chemists, an HKBU alumni association, initiated the move to establish an Endowed Professorship in Chemistry in the name of Dr. Mok Man Hung, the former Vice-President (Administration) and Council Secretary, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Head of the Department of Chemistry at HKBU, who served the University with dedication during his lifetime. Alumni from the Department of Chemistry have therefore done their utmost to raise funds for the establishment of this Endowed Professorship to acknowledge Dr. Mok’s contributions over the years. Professor Wong expressed heartfelt gratitude to the donors for their support and stated that the financial assistance of this professorship can help attract fresh talents and advanced technologies to strengthen the research team. "I understand that it is not easy to turn an idea into a practical result as it requires significant effort and faces many challenges. Each team member is like a cog in a machine, and everyone needs to be in sync to cooperate." Professor Wong also thanked Dr. Mok for leading the development of the Department of Chemistry over the years, giving him a team with a sense of mission, and expressed his excitement about raising research to the next level.
Scientist with a Heart
In addition to his academic duties, Professor Wong serves as the Resident Master of the C.N. Yang Hall at HKBU, where he establishes close relationships with the residents and shows his care for their career development. Professor Wong pointed out that hall life is a new phase in the lives of many undergraduates, "It is the first time they leave their family members to experience the taste of independence and cultural diversity. I hope I can help students adapt to the hall life through my own experience of working or living abroad." Echoing the C.N. Yang Hall’s motto of "Hall with a heart", Professor Wong as the "Scientist with a heart" has exhibited this motto’s spirit vividly.