Creating stem cells

30 July 2016

While at secondary school, Dr Kathy Lui read a book about the Nobel Prize winning scientists Howard Walter Florey and Ernst Boris Chain and their pioneering work in discovering penicillin as the first antibiotic to treat human patients, by essentially examining mould. Their story convinced her of the value of pursuing a career in medical research.

"It fascinated me that a single observation could make a life-saving medicine," says Lui, now an internationally renowned stem cell research scientist, who was invited to create her own laboratory from scratch in Hong Kong, two years ago.

Lui is a Hong Kong-born scientist. She wanted to study stem cell research for her Master's degree after graduating from The Chinese University of Hong Kong but at the time, stem cell research was a novel field and there were no laboratories in Hong Kong, so she studied cancer cells instead which have numerous superficial similarities.

After completing her Masters, she received three offers from the UK to undertake her PhD in the stem cell field and she chose to examine pluripotent stem cells at Oxford University. Her project was to work on the prevention of immune rejection to embryonic stem cells. 

Induced pluripotent stem cells

While she was working on her DPhil (i.e. the Doctor of Philosophy degree in Oxford) in 2007, researchers elsewhere made an important discovery by identifying conditions that would allow some self adult cells to be 'reprogrammed' genetically to assume an autologous stem cell-like state.

Dr Kathy Lui

This new type of stem cell, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), was a big breakthrough and the research was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012. Now the source of stem cells was limitless. Before the advent of iPSCs acceptance of the different stem cell harvesting methods was the biggest issue for stem cell research.

"It often happens in science that when you choose a subject to study another new path opens up," says Lui philosophically, and despite this major breakthrough, Lui explains that most clinical trials are still undertaken using embryonic stem cells because one source can be used on many different recipients despite their non-self origin. 

The process to make patient-specific iPSCs is also very time consuming and more expensive than using human embryonic stem cells. The iPSCs are therefore less appealing to pharmaceutical companies.

Cell regeneration

After her DPhil, Lui was offered a post-Doctoral fellow position at Harvard University, where she used modified RNA technology in order to promote heart regeneration from cardiac stem cells for the very first time. 

This study of cardiovascular regeneration is a critical area of medical research because heart attacks cause the death of billions of the heart’s muscle cells and heart disease is the leading cause of deaths worldwide. If these cardiomyocytes could be made to regenerate after an infarction, the heart could potentially be mended and its function restored.

"I achieved my dream, to create real functional cell types such as heart cells from stem cells," she says and it was a Croucher Fellowship that helped fund her first two years of progress at Harvard. 

On completion of her important post doctoral work in the USA, Lui received many offers to set up her own research group but she was looking for an opportunity to return to Hong Kong,

"I had also received several offers from the UK to set up my own lab but I wanted to bring my skill set here and train students - that was a promise to myself- and my family is here," she says.

A lab of her own

It was Professor Dennis Lo who offered her the opportunity to establish her own laboratory at The Chinese University of Hong Kong from scratch, just two years ago, and it is exclusively focused on pluripotent stem cell research.

"It was very different from joining an established institute," she says and Lui found she had little time for performing research now because she had to be involved in designing research, securing funding, recruiting and training staff members, and dealing with general administration. It was extremely hard work.

"I have not had a holiday for two years and I have very little time for myself," she admits.

She now has a team of seven members from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan and while she does less hands-on research she remains more focused in training and mentoring. The laboratory is engaged in human embryonic and iPSC research with the current focus on the treatment of cardiovascular complications of diabetes with human pluripotent stem cells.

"We are now able to make cardiomyocytes, blood vessel cells and insulin producing cells from human pluripotent stem cells for transplantation" says Lui and explains there are lots of cardio vascular complications from diabetes and that her team is looking to model the disease using stem cells .

She explains that her team is small and stem cell research is extremely expensive because the medium in which the cells are grown is costly and the process is very labour intensive. It is very difficult to undertake this type of research when the funding is so modest and they are forced to collaborate a great deal with outside institutes. Fortunately, when Lui returned to Hong Kong, she not only brought her skill set but a valuable network of former colleagues at Oxford and Harvard who are also running their laboratories overseas, with whom she can collaborate.

Despite the rapid progress of stem cell research, Lui estimates it might be another ten years before stem cell treatments are offered as standard to cardiovascular patients in Hong Kong hospitals. She says there are still gaps in their knowledge.

"When you transfer the cells to a human recipient they will die very quickly so how do we keep those cells alive? - We cannot do transplants every few weeks," she explains.

"We still have a long way to go with our research."

Dr Kathy Lui completed her B.Sc (Hons, First Class) and M.Phil. degrees at the Department of Biochemistry, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. With support from the Dorothy Hodgkin Postgraduate Scholarship, Lui completed her D.Phil. training in the field of Stem Cell Immunology at Oxford University in 2009. Lui was also the recipient of a senior scholarship at Lincoln College, Oxford and the Peter Beaconsfield Prize in Physiological Sciences, Oxford. After her D.Phil., Lui received the Croucher Foundation Fellowship and continued her postdoctoral training in the field of Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University. She has been Assistant Professor at Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences and Department of Chemical Pathology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong since August 2014. 

To view Dr Lui's personal Croucher profile, please click here.