Chemist gallops into career with the Jockey Club

5 August 2020

On race days that take place at Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Shatin track, May Sin Ki Fung (Croucher Postdoctoral Fellow 2018) can sometimes see the horses thunder past her window.

But for her, this is not entertainment. For Fung is a Jockey Club chemist, and ensuring that racing is clean and those horses are drug-free is a role that draws on her decade of study and research both in Hong Kong and at the University of California, Berkeley.

At Berkeley, she focused on the development of an anti-inflammatory drug for Pfizer, benefiting from her supervisor Professor Daniel Nomura’s numerous collaborations with the pharmaceutical industry. At the Jockey Club, her work involves identifying and quantifying prohibited substances, using a mass spectrometer. They had the same model at Berkeley but used it for a different purpose, she said.

Hong Kong-born Fung, who joined the Jockey Club in March 2020 on her return from the US, said the club was making a huge effort to ensure clean racing. It had invested in experienced and highly qualified staff as well as state-of-the-art equipment for the high security laboratory at the Shatin racecourse.

Hong Kong has had a rate of just 0.02 per cent post-race test positives in the past five years – lower than other leading racing centres, Fung said. To improve its quality control, her laboratory compares Hong Kong samples with those it receives from overseas, and participates in proficiency testing programmes.

In addition, between race days, random testing is conducted to ensure horses are not administered with banned substances during training.

It can be fast-paced work. Fung and her team must clear up to 120 horses per race day. For the Wednesday evening races, held at Happy Valley as well as Shatin, urine samples are collected from the horses that same day, while for Sunday afternoons they are gathered the previous evening and sent to the lab overnight.

If a urine sample cannot be sourced from a horse, blood is collected by a vet, with collection closely monitored by security staff. Only a few people handle the samples, said Fung, who works in a team of six in a Jockey Club support section, focused on quality assurance.

For each race, nine to 12 horses are tested and a report delivered to the stewards 30 minutes before the off, which is a challenging schedule. “We cannot give a false positive, that is not acceptable, and has never happened in the history of this laboratory,” Fung said.

Then comes post-race testing, with another urine sample and a blood sample collected from the winning and placed horses as well as from any that did not provide a pre-race urine sample or are deemed suspicious by the stewards. “The test scope for post-race is broader than pre-race,” Fung said.

The jockeys, too, face urine testing post-race, for performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. For the horses, the focus is on drugs that enhance performance or reduce performance as both can affect the outcome of a race.

Chemistry was Fung’s best subject at Kowloon True Light School. From there she undertook a Bachelor of Science in chemistry at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), graduating with first class honours and undertaking an exchange at the University of Cambridge.

During her PhD studies in chemistry at HKU, she was, she said, fortunate to be supervised by Professor Che Chi-Ming, who enabled her to see the breadth of possibilities in her chosen field of study.

Her inorganic chemistry research for her PhD focused on detecting and treating cancer through the use of anti-cancer metal medicines, in particular platinum and gold complexes. Having identified multiple molecular targets for gold-based anti-cancer complexes, she published in 2017 as the lead author on this research in Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

After being awarded her PhD in 2016, Fung went to work at the Nano and Advanced Materials Institute, a research and development centre in Hong Kong. She worked there for a year in a role more related to marketing and business development, but found her real desire remained to work directly as a scientist.

Encouraged by Che, Fung applied and was selected for a Croucher Postdoctoral Fellowship, spending two years at Berkeley. There, she conducted research aimed at identifying targets for drugs and mapping druggable hotspots directly in complex proteomes, or sets of proteins, supervised by Nomura.

In addition to work in the lab, she had the opportunity to collaborate with a team in a pharmaceutical company. This proved a highly valuable experience, she said, given the difference in approach between the university scientists, focused more on basic research, and the company’s staff, who considered how to apply the work to people.

Among the challenges was finding how to synchronise the research data to accommodate both teams’ needs, for example, how to set the parameters of the experiment.

That work will be published, though publication has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Fung’s current focus is on using her knowledge and skills to help the Hong Kong Jockey Club ensure the city’s racing stays clean.

Dr May Sin Ki Fung is a chemist at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, working on doping control in the racing industry. She received her BSc (Chemistry), with first class honours, from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 2012, and her PhD in chemistry from HKU in 2016. After a year working with the Nano and Advanced Materials Institute in Hong Kong, she joined the University of California, Berkeley, in 2018, as a Croucher Postdoctoral Fellow.

To view Dr Fung’s Croucher profile, please click here