Prof Kai Liu has a laser-like focus on neuroscience, specifically on discovering ways to regenerate axons in damaged spinal cords. Spinal cord injury is one of the biggest medical challenges facing mankind, because unlike amphibians or fish, humans are incapable of regenerating damaged nerve cells in the spinal cord. It is estimated that tens of millions of people living with spinal cord injuries in the whole world. He is fascinated by the fact that our liver tissue can regenerate, but not the nerve cells in our ears, eyes and spinal cord.
Prof Liu is exploring ways of axon regeneration through stimulating neurons chemically and genetically. He says that usually neurons inside the brain do not die after spinal cord injury. If a way could be found to restore the spinal cord connection, its function in motor control and sensation could be restored. So far he has had very encouraging results from tests on lab mice, in which for the first time he was able to induce motor axon regeneration in the spinal cord from injuries that even took place 1 year ago. He sees the promise of the stimulation of neuronal activity, and is also actively looking for more powerful druggable targets. But, as optimistic as we can be, he cautions that we are still a long way from carrying out clinical trials for humans. Research scientists such as Prof Liu have a mountain to climb, though the glimmer of hope for paraplegics everywhere is within sight.
Prof Liu is one of the exciting young scientists at HKUST to ask big questions on important areas of scientific enquiry. He is very much alive to the big picture and has something to say about the intellectual longevity of scientists. He says that for many exceptional scientists, the research cycle can take decades for one major discovery. It will already be fortunate for many of them having two such cycles in their entire career. It is crucial to encourage scientists to engage in basic, long-term research by giving much-needed financial support. For the translational side, there is even much bigger financial gap between research and clinical application. It is unrealistic to “spend a little money to do big things.”. Another condition conducive to research productivity is a critical mass of peers tackling research of a significant scale. Such a community of fellow researchers makes for an exciting research environment. Local scientific researchers can definitely rise to the challenge with proper support. Also, Hong Kong scientists need to step out of the research lab to educate the public about the importance of scientific research.
Prof Liu is the product of a high-quality Chinese undergraduate education at Peking University and a doctoral degree program at Rutgers University in the US. With his postdoc training at Children’s Hospital in Boston, which was affiliated with the Harvard Medical School, he now works in HKUST’s Division of Life Science. His research work has been featured in distinguished publications, such as the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, Science Advances, Journal of Neuroscience.