Reversing brain damage with two proteins

10 August 2018

Dr Kwok-Fai Lau has recently discovered a novel mechanism that stimulates the growth of nerve cell.

The finding provides important insights into developing strategies to stimulate neurite regeneration in patients with neurodegenerative disorders.

Neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease are caused by loss of function in brain and spinal cord cells. In these conditions, a damaged neural network is observed, in which degeneration and retraction of neurite are found.

Dr Kwok-Fai Lau (Croucher Fellowship 1998) of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has discovered a mechanism that stimulates neurite outgrowth. By introducing two specific proteins into the neuron, FE65 and ELMO1, the length of neurites can be increased by at least two times.

Dr Kwok-Fai Lau and the research team

FE65 is a brain-enriched adaptor that is implicated in nervous system development and ELMO1 is a widely expressed protein that participates in various processes including cell migration. However, the role of ELMO1 in the nervous system has never been reported.

The team demonstrated that the introduction of the two proteins promotes the transport of ELMO1 to the plasma membrane where it activates Rac1, a key regulator of cytoskeleton, the remodelling of which is required for neurite extension.

One major obstacle in treating neurodegenerative disorders is to reconnect the neurons in the brain of the patients. Professor Lau believes that their work has provided a new direction in regenerative medicine for the injured brain. He said, “Re-connection of injured neurons could be achieved by the stimulation of neurite re-outgrowth in these cells through manipulating FE65-ELMO1 interaction.” Most recently, the team has obtained new data regarding how to regulate the interaction.

Dr Yuen Mang Ho, a specialist in neurology said, “Existing drug treatment for Alzheimer’s disease can only improve patients’ memory, awareness, and their ability to function, but not for curing the disease. This finding provides a new perspective in treating the disease and could greatly improve patients’ health and quality of life.”

This research is published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Dr Kwok-Fai Lau obtained his BSc degree in biology at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Thereafter, he received a PhD degree in biochemistry at CUHK. In 1999, he was awarded a Croucher Foundation fellowship and relocated to the Institute of Psychiatry in London UK where he started his work on Alzheimer’s disease. In 2007, he returned to his alma mater as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry. Currently, he is an Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences. Since his returned to CUHK, he has published his work in several leading international journals including Nature Communications, PNAS, FASEB Journal and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. He received the Science Faculty Exemplary Teaching Award in 2014.

To view Dr Lau's Croucher profile, please click here