2015 Innovation Award: Tom Cheung

17 June 2015

Dr Tom Cheung is a passionate scientist carrying out research in the field of muscle stem cells. His interest in this discipline of science began during his postdoctoral years when he worked on the muscle cavity and its regeneration processes. Stem cells, a core element of regeneration, became the key focus of the research.

Cheung’s research explores the signalling involved in regulating stem cell activity, particularly in the context of ageing. In adult organisms, muscle stem cells are found in a quiescence state and are only activated by the means of extrinsic stimuli, such as an injury. Upon activation, the stem cells proliferate, differentiate and thus, regenerate the tissue. In the case of some older organisms, a depletion of stem cells occur due to a malfunction in the activation process. Stem cells are activated by factors secreted by the malfunctioning skeletal muscle and then, continuously divide until they are unable to return to their original, dormant state, causing a loss of available stem cells for regenerative purposes.

Cheung seeks to first, examine how stem cells reside in a quiescence state, the composition of these cells and the mechanism adopted to retain their cell identity and potency. He also will work to determine the point of which cells began this process of stem cell exhaustion in order to develop strategies avoid the loss of necessary stem cells. By the use of genetic tools, he will understand better how a stem cell ages, find out the signalling mechanisms driving the sudden proliferation of stem cells and design therapeutic approaches to stop such proliferation.

The research also will be pursued from a translation aspect with collaborations with the orthopaedic department in Chinese University. Cheung plans to obtain tissue biopsies from the department in order to carry out muscle stem cell research on human tissue from patients of different ages and backgrounds. The number of stem cells in each individual varies greatly, regardless of their age, and this stream of research can help form links between the physiology of the subject with the stem cell number and their molecular signature in order to identify the transcriptome of stem cells.

In terms of challenges, Cheung admits that this research pushes the limit of available technologies. The technology used requires a large amount of starting material. A difficulty in working with stem cells is that the material available to be used in experiments is limited. However, Cheung and his team are attempting to engineer all their protocols in order to use a minuscule amount of material in the different stages of the study. Cheung’s team is lined with the expertise to tackle all angles of the research, from the genetics aspect to the computational and technological aspect, in order to better understand the biology of ageing.

This is a major age dependent issue faced by society today, especially regarding Hong Kong’s demographics. By understanding in greater detail how the body ages, we could reduce the social burden caused by muscle stem cell-related health problems faced by the aging population.

Cheung is the recipient of the 2015 Croucher Innovation Award. He is currently an Assistant Professor with the Division of Life Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

To view Dr Tom Cheung's personal Croucher profile, please click here

For more information on Croucher Innovation Awards, please click here.