Unveiling the intricacies of RNA

8 May 2024

Dr Chun Kit Kwok of City University of Hong Kong was recently awarded the RNA Society’s Early Career Award. Croucher News spoke to him about this and his work including his founding of the Hong Kong RNA Club. 

The RNA Society is a non-profit international scientific society founded in the USA in 1993. The Society has more than 1,800 members and is dedicated to fostering research and education in the field of RNA science. When we asked about the significance of this award, Kwok told us that the Early-Career Awards were established in 2016 and that it felt very special to him to join a distinguished group of previous winners. “Being the first scientist from Hong Kong to get this prestigious award,” he told us, “helps to put Hong Kong on the map in terms of international recognition of the work being done here in the RNA field. This is truly motivating, and I hope this can attract more talented young scientists to work in RNA-related areas in Hong Kong.”

One part of the citation from the RNA Society concerned Kwok’s efforts in running the Hong Kong RNA Club, which he founded in 2017. The Club is clearly very close to Kwok’s heart, and it’s significant that it’s still going strong nearly seven years later. Kwok first came across a similar RNA club co-led by his PhD mentor (Professor Philip Bevilacqua) at Penn State while he was studying there, which provided the inspiration to set up a similar RNA club in Hong Kong, affiliated to the RNA Society. He says the Hong Kong RNA Club allows scientists across different departments and institutions to share their latest discoveries and inventions in their research areas. “It also provides great experience for young researchers, including my own students and postdocs,” he said. “It gives them a unique platform and chance to meet other senior researchers from Hong Kong as well as from universities around the world. It really helps them to feel connected to other experts in the field,” he added.

“Recognition of the club by the RNA Society also makes it easier for us to get further support from industry, so that we can have the resources we need to invite international speakers and to organise different types of activities such as symposiums, seminars, RNA enthusiast spotlights, etc.”

Kwok also reflected on the fact that back in 2017, RNA research did not have the prominence it has now, and the club had helped to raise its profile locally. “The science has always been there, but until the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid and effective deployment of mRNA vaccines, it had little public prominence,” he told us.

He mentioned the visit of Katalin Karikó, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023, to Hong Kong last year, where she received an honorary doctor of science degree from CUHK. “She had worked for many years on this technology before the pandemic,” Kwok told us. “But it was not until it started being used for these mRNA vaccines, which were rolled out so quickly as a result of her work, that RNA research was given widespread publicity,” Kwok added. “So it was a thrill for my students to meet her, get inspired by her scientific and personal story, and learn from her example of perseverance in her field.”

Kwok and colleagues with Professor Katalin Karikó, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize

The second part of Kwok’s citation for his award was for his work on “the function of G-quadruplexes in regulating gene expression.” In order to explain the significance of this, he recapped some key points from the basic science. First of all, although RNA is best known for having a role as a kind of messenger to express DNA and turn it into proteins in our bodies, we now understand that RNA has other functions too. For example, it can perform catalysis, rather like a protein, in some circumstances. Secondly, although its structure is usually read as AUCG (the nucleotide bases are adenine (A), uracil (U), guanine (G), and cytosine (C), it can also form other structures through pairing, allowing it to perform different functions. In this context, structure is function, in the same way that the shape of a key determines which lock it can open, explained Kwok. There are, in fact, many kinds of RNA in our bodies, each with its own structure, such as G-quadruplexes.

Understanding these G-quadruplex structures and functions better is an exciting area of research right now, according to Kwok, with potential applications in oncology (including cancer therapies), virology, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Kwok’s lab is also developing tools to manipulate these RNA structures, which might lead to potential therapies in medicine. It’s an exciting time, it would seem, to be in RNA research, and Kwok agrees. “There’s more attention given to the field these days, and our work is at the cutting edge of key areas of research,” he told us.

This helps to explain why Kwok has been on Stanford’s list of the top 2% most cited scientists in the world in 2021 and 2023. But there’s perhaps a broader reason for this success in his early career so far. “As a young scientist, beside motivation and perseverance, it’s equally important to think strategically about your work,” he said. “You need to be bold and find a gap in knowledge and technology which is wide enough to allow you to make really important scientific breakthroughs and technological developments, but not so wide that there are too many challenges to overcome all at once, which can take up your limited initial funding, you and your team’s energy, and reduce your positivity and focus. This is a fine balance!”

Kwok said that the funding he had received from Croucher Foundation (he won an Innovation Award in 2019 and a postdoctoral fellowship in 2014) had been very helpful to him in pursuing a broad area of science without having to always focus on short-term research goals. And he also saw Lord Todd, the founding President of Croucher Foundation, as an inspiration. Todd won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1957 for his work on nucleotides and nucleotide co-enzymes, foundational work for later research into DNA and RNA. “Like him, I’m a chemist working in an area related to bioscience. And as chemists, we are good at breaking things down and developing methods and techniques to solve problems,” he explained.