Cathy Lui: The Science of Caring
08 Aug 2019
Scientific Research to Cure the Incurable
To many, scientific research is a male-dominated world. But Dr Cathy Lui, the young lady wearing long hair in a laboratory coat, is someone who has broken free from the constraints of such a conventional perception. She is not only a Senior Research Associate at HKBU’s Department of Biology, she is concurrently CEO of a biotech company.
Making laboratory her home
Cathy is an alumna of the Department of Biology. “Many of my university classmates have chosen to engage in banking, and they are quite satisfied with how they are progressing. I am the only one who has chosen scientific research as my career.”
It is sad but true that in a money-driven society like Hong Kong, a career such as scientific research that earns no guaranteed returns, is hardly the average youngster’s cup of tea. But that is definitely the case for Dr Lui, who finds herself very fortunate to be able to fulfil her wish, which is to work in the research field. “I am so grateful to my parents, they let me enjoy the liberty of chasing my dream.”
Having inspired Cathy to set out on her research journey, Professor Ken Yung has also given her much support along the way since. Ever since Cathy pursued her degree programme, Professor Yung has encouraged her to present her work on international platforms. Cathy’s outstanding honours project, on therapeutic strategies for treating Parkinson’s disease, made her the only undergraduate from Hong Kong to win the Travel Award at the Annual Meeting of the Japan Neuroscience Society. And her outstanding testimonials won her doctoral degree admission tickets to other universities. But Cathy chose instead to continue her journey at HKBU. “The great freedom I enjoy at HKBU motivates me to unleash more creativity in my research.”
Being so deeply engrossed in her research, Cathy became almost isolated from the outside world. This became especially so when she was working for her PhD: activities that appeal to most young ladies like shopping and watching movies were never part of her schedule. But Cathy still found that her life was as sweet as malt sugar. She routinely stayed on in the research laboratory until 2 to 3am, “I used to work late, until the campus security guard came by on his patrol. If it would have been possible, I would rather have camped out in the lab!’
Every cloud has a silver lining
Dr Lui's research study targets neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease, dementia and strokes. In 2014, her research team successfully developed a new personalised neurological disorder therapy in which magnetic nanoparticles coated with antibodies are used to extract neural stem cells from the subject. Neurospheres are successfully generated in vitro from the extracted neural stem cells and the newly generated neural cells can be transplanted back to the same subject. At present, this is the only such technology in the world, and has been patented in the United States.
Along with the surge in the ageing population in Hong Kong, we see a trend of younger age groups contracting neurodegenerative diseases, with some patients aged only in their thirties. At this point in time, there is still no therapy that can provide a total cure for neural diseases, and patients have to rely on medicines that can only alleviate the symptoms. In collaboration with a leading world pharmaceutical company, Cathy and her team anticipate that her proposed therapy will reach the clinical experiment stage in five years’ time.
However, this life-changing technology was not as highly acclaimed as it was when the initial concept was first announced. “There was a time that we met the judges for a research grant, and the judge commented that our research concept was good but unrealistic. This discouraging comment only served to strengthen our will and boost our morale.” With years of unceasing endeavours, the team proved that their research concept was not a Tale of the Arabian Nights, as it was sometimes regarded, but was a beacon of hope lighting up the lives of desperate patients, leading them and their families out of the darkness.
This biotechnology is Hong Kong-originated
Last year, Cathy gave birth to her baby daughter. Being a first-time mother, Cathy finds her healthy family a priceless blessing. To find out more about how patients are affected by neurodegenerative diseases, Cathy observes the patients’ condition during their medical consultations. A deep melancholy descends upon her when she sees her patients and their families suffer agonies of hopelessness. “I have witnessed a patient who chose to receive the current stimulation treatment just for alleviating the symptoms. The details of the treatment are still fresh in my mind. If our research can contribute to the successful treatment of our patients, we have no hesitation in making endless attempts. We have never thought of giving up, despite the countless failures.”
When it comes to biotechnology, people may think of technologically advanced countries like the United States or European countries where state-of-the-art research facilities and plentiful resources are guaranteed. In the early stages of her research, Cathy and her team came up against the problem of scarce resources. Worse still, there was also a time when they ran into a bottleneck which stopped moving even a single step forward for over half a year. But thanks to her team’s perseverance in giving hope to suffering patients, they have finally overcome all of the formidable hurdles. Their remarkable achievement proudly demonstrates the exceptional competence of Hong Kong scientific researchers. “The seven members of our team were all born and brought up in Hong Kong, we are all from HKBU. I would say our technology is solely made in Hong Kong.”