HKU Funded Most Projects and Largest Amount in Latest Round of RGC’s Theme-based Research Scheme

HKU researchers have achieved excellent results in the sixth round of the Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS), a major grant scheme of the Research Grants Council (RGC) that aims to focus academic research efforts on themes of strategic importance to the long-term development of Hong Kong.

In this latest round of the scheme, HKU is participating in all seven funded projects and coordinating four of them. The following four HKU-led projects—which look at gastric cancer, liver cancer, wastewater treatment and digital citizenship—received a total budget valued at HK$140M (including on-costs) for a period of five years.


Gastric Cancer Genomics and Beyond - Moving from Patient Samples to 3D Organoid Cultures for Integrative Genomics Analysis, Drug Sensitivity Assays, Cell Biological Studies and Animal Models

Project Coordinator: Professor S.Y. Leung, Department of Pathology
Approved funding: HK$

Gastric cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. “There are many types of gastric cancers and each requires a different treatment strategy,” Professor Leung explained. “The main goal of this project is to help doctors choose more effective and personalised drugs that are based on each patient’s cancer genome. We will build an organoid biobank of gastric cancer and normal tissues from patients, and perform drug sensitivity tests on the organoids and analyse their genomic changes. It will help us understand how cancer driver genes can change normal cells to cancer cells, and why some cancers are resistant to specific drug treatments so that we can find ways to overcome such drug resistance.” The project will also generate valuable resources, including an organoid biobank, a genomic database with drug response information, knowledge on drug resistance mechanisms, and novel animal models for drug testing and mechanistic studies.




Project Coordinator Professor S.Y. Leung

“Our multi-disciplinary team of scientists, bioinformaticists and clinicians have strong and complimentary skill sets that will help revolutionise the way we classify and treat cancer, from mostly organ-based to genomics-based,” Professor Leung said. “We are extremely grateful to be awarded this competitive grant and we also feel a great responsibility to use the funding to improve the lives of patients and their families suffering from this deadly disease.”

Understanding Cancer Stemness in Liver Cancer - From Regulation to Translational Applications

Project Coordinator: Professor I.O.L. Ng, Department of Pathology
Approved funding: HK$42.222

This project looks at cancer stem cells (CSCs), a subset of cancer cells that are capable of self-renewal and maintaining tumour propagation. “In liver cancer, like other cancer types, the CSCs fuel tumour growth and are resistant to conventional chemo/radio-therapy,” Professor Ng explained. “Targeting these cells therefore offers a promising approach for liver cancer treatment.”

“Our previous studies have identified markers to recognise liver CSCs and provided evidence to show that antibodies selectively blocking the marked CSCs are efficacious in suppressing tumour growth. In this project, we aim to find out the molecular pathways common to the different CSC subpopulations and examine how these pathways may regulate CSCs, hence providing targets for selective blocking of CSC functions. These new targets would be useful for developing novel treatments.”




Project Coordinator Professor Irene Ng

“We adopt a robust and multidisciplinary approach to tackle this grand challenge and important health issue,” said Professor Ng. “Our team is very thankful for this TRS support as it will take our discovery in CSC research to new heights and help us achieve the goal of translating our research findings into pre-clinical trials to benefit cancer patients.”


Enhanced Separation and Sludge Refinery for Wastewater Treatment - Solving the Nexus of Pollution Control and Resource Recovery in Mega Cities

Project Coordinator: Professor X.Y. Li, Department of Civil Engineering
Approved funding: HK

Mega cities like Hong Kong need advances in wastewater treatment to cope with the environmental problems brought about by rapid population growth and urbanisation. “Using innovative technologies, we seek to develop a new water treatment system with more efficient pollutant removal and resource recovery for value-added products such as fertilisers, organic acids and bio-plastics, as well as reduced sludge, food waste and carbon emission,” Professor Li explained. “Our project aims to transform wastewater treatment from an end-of-the-pipe purification to a resource-mining practice. The novel processes developed can also be used as add-on modules to retrofit existing facilities.”

Team members from HKU Civil Engineering (left to right): Dr Kaimin Shih, Professor Xiao-yan Li, Professor Tong Zhang and Dr May Chui

The project is built on HKU’s research strength in the field of water environmental engineering that has received significant support from external and internal funding sources, and is led by a multidisciplinary team. “We believe in the importance of collaboration among different disciplines in producing quality research,” Professor Li said. “Our team members have been working together over the years and the synergy created has led to this successful TRS application and will enable us to excel and evolve into a world-leading R&D centre in wastewater treatment and water pollution control technologies. The TRS grant is a reward for the efforts of all members of the team, and we believe our innovation will contribute to developing a sustainable environment in Hong Kong, China and elsewhere.”

Learning and Assessment for Digital Citizenship

Project Coordinator: Professor N.W.Y. Law, Faculty of Education
Approved funding: HK

Digital citizenship is the right and ability of a person to live, work and participate in a society where digital technology permeates through private and public life. “It includes both the cognitive ability and the socio-emotional disposition to (i) take advantage of rapidly developing digital technology to enhance well-being at school/work and daily life activities, and (ii) avoid the many risks that are hidden in the cyber-world,” Professor Law explained. “This project will address research questions about the impact of digital media on human development and the everyday life of children and youths in order to develop learning resources and assessment instruments for digital citizenship.”

Project Coordinator Professor Nancy Law

The project brings together an interdisciplinary team of local and international experts from fields including education, humanities, information science and computer engineering. “The theoretical contributions and the tools and instruments developed through the project will have significant impact on educational policy and practice, parent education, social policy, as well as the e-learning industry,” Professor Law said. “We hope to set up channels to communicate our research findings to the wider community in the next five years, and explore partnership with different sectors on translating the findings to benefit society.”


Success in other competitive funding schemes

Apart from the TRS, HKU has performed very well in other RGC competitive peer-reviewed research funding schemes. In the General Research Fund (GRF), the University has been awarded both the greatest number of projects (233) and highest amount of funding (HK$157.5M, excluding on-costs) for the 14th consecutive year. HKU’s young academic and research staff have also achieved success in the Early Career Scheme (ECS) by securing the largest share of approved projects (34) and funding (HK$22.9M, excluding on-costs). In the Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme (HSSPFS), two of the four approved projects were awarded to HKU researchers (HK$1.3M of funding, excluding on-costs), the largest among the institutions.

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