Renewed Connections

Injury and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can cause irreversible damage to nerve cells, manifesting in lowered mobility, sensation and overall quality of life. Regeneration of nerve cells, especially in the central nervous system, was believed to be very limited. However, scientists at HKUST have discovered methods to stimulate regeneration of axonal regrowth (long nerve fibers responsible for communicating information to different neurons) in mice, lending renewed hope in treating spinal cord injuries. 

Neuroscientist, Prof Kai Liu and his team, found that erasing the gene PTEN in mice with spinal cord injuries activates yet another gene mTOR – the latter of which promotes axon regeneration. The first-time discovery was bolstered by a subsequent study by Prof Liu that elucidated the mechanism of neuronal activity enhancement through optogenetic (use of light to control cells) and chemogenetic (use of chemically engineered molecules to control cells) approaches. 

A recent collaborative team, led by Prof Liu and comprising scientists from Chinese Academy of Sciences and Jinan University, identified the role of a new gene known as Vps4 in delaying the degradation of damaged nerves from neurodegenerative diseases. This body of work builds understanding toward the intricate mechanisms and possibility of neuro-regeneration, giving rise to future development of disease treatment and management.  

Prof Kai Liu is Cheng Associate Professor of Science at the Division of Life Science at HKUST. He has published numerous papers in high impact journals such as Science Advances, PNAS and Nature Neuroscience.

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