Epigenomics opened up following the decoding of the first complete set of human DNA in 2003. The novel area focuses on the chemical modifications of DNA and its surround proteins and determines whether pieces of the code are activated or repressed. It is epigenomics that enables our bodies to contain more than 200 different cell types – a brain cell, for example, varies vastly from a lung cell or a liver cell – even though the underlying code remains unchanged. “Every cell in a human body essentially has the same DNA sequence. But how that sequence is read is epigenetics,” Prof Leung explained.
Over the past 15 years, studies have revealed epigenetic modifications to be associated with diseases when the mechanism goes wrong. The list is long, ranging from neurological disorders and Alzheimer’s disease to cancers and autoimmune problems. On the positive side, Prof Leung noted, the epigenome is “tunable” and targeting such modifications is already proving a valuable way of developing promising treatments.
A Croucher Innovation Award recipient in 2017, Prof Leung focuses his own research on how epigenomic modifications are utilized in different cancers. However, as a passionate believer in both the scientific and therapeutic benefits of greater understanding of the epigenomic landscape and previously involved in managing one of the branches of the National Institutes of Health Roadmap Epigenomics Project in the United States before joining HKUST in 2015, Prof Leung is also determined to advance the field overall in Hong Kong by forging a globally recognized epigenomic research community here.
Building Hong Kong recognition
In 2016, he started the exciting Hong Kong Epigenomics Project, which draws together neuroscientists, muscle biologists, liver biologists, computer scientists and bioengineers from five different local institutions in 15 groups. Along with Prof Leung, HKUST faculty members include Profs Nancy Ip, Karl Herrup, Tom Cheung, Angela Wu, Jiguang Wang and Zhenguo Wu, representing the largest single institutional presence.
The Project, now supported by the Lo Ka Chung Charitable Foundation, is centering on three flagship types of cells, which draw on the world-class strengths of the group’s researchers and are of key relevance to diseases in Hong Kong and the region: muscle stem cells that can bring insights on muscular dystrophy and aging; liver cells to assist with hepatitis-induced liver cancer in Hong Kong, for example; and brain cells, specifically oligodendrocytes and their involvement in glioblastoma, a lethal form of brain cancer that currently has no effective treatment. With clinicians involved, the Project will also look at how the data generated can impact on patient management.
Soon after the Hong Kong project was launched, the group was elected a member of the International Human Epigenome Consortium (IHEC), a global research initiative by leading scientists seeking to reference epigenomes of every cell type in the human body. Prior to this, there was no representation from Greater China.
The data that the Hong Kong group generates will be made publicly available so researchers around the world can use it. “This collective approach is the scientific trend of the future. Doing so helps accelerate the field exponentially by providing more information for everybody,” Prof Leung said.
Research students are already benefiting, gaining additional know-how and impetus from having a leading community of epigenomics people around them to help them achieve excellence. “The students have loved our meetings and it has been standing room only,” Prof Leung said. “They may be the only ones doing such work in their labs and this enables them to get together with professors and peers and share.” Training for researchers keen to learn more about epigenomics and its techniques, and outreach to let more people locally and regionally become familiar with the field are also a part of the project’s mandate. In addition, HKUST hosted the IHEC’s Annual Meeting & Science Days in October 2018, where best of both fields gathered to exchange knowledge and insights, general public were welcomed to attend as well.
“When I arrived back in Hong Kong, I noticed there were a lot of people doing research in the epigenomic area but no community,” Prof Leung said. “By creating one, we build a field and in doing so we make something we view as important known to be important to everyone.”