Pioneering research on RNA and gene regulation earns Croucher Innovation Award
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Dr Kwok Chun-kit, Assistant Professor from the Department of Chemistry at City University of Hong Kong (CityU), has won the Croucher Innovation Award 2019 from Croucher Foundation.
He has been recognised for his pioneering research on exploring the relationship between RNA (ribonucleic acid) and gene regulation as well as its link to human diseases such as cancer. His work has tremendous potential for scientific discoveries and applications.
There are a lot of RNAs playing important role in our bodies, but so far scientists’ basic research on RNA is insufficient. To fill the gap, Dr Kwok has developed new technologies to identify and examine the structure and mechanism of coding RNA (mRNA), which are likely to be applied to studying long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) and other RNA classes.
mRNA, accounting for around 5% of all RNAs in our bodies, is responsible for transcribing genetic information stored in DNA to produce proteins for our physiological functions. The remaining over 90% are non-coding RNAs (including lncRNA) that do not produce proteins, yet their functions and exact positions are not clearly known.
Dr Kwok said that more than 15,000 lncRNAs had been identified in the human body so far, but the functions of only about 200 are known. Recent studies have found that some diseases such as cancers are linked to certain lncRNAs, but the cause has not been identified. Therefore, one of his laboratory’s research focuses is to unravel the mystery of lncRNA.
Dr Kwok has studied lncRNAs by applying interdisciplinary approaches that cover chemical biology, molecular biology, structural biology and genomics. He has developed a new high-throughput sequencing technology to characterise the lncRNA structure and interactions under diverse conditions and different cell lineages.
“lncRNA plays a pivotal role in the processes of gene expression and regulation, species evolution, RNA metabolism and tumor formation. My team’s research will uncover a novel and important model of gene regulation and molecular mechanism led by lncRNA. We can then try to use chemical and molecular tools to control for diagnostic and therapeutic applications,” Dr Kwok said.
Dr Kwok also focuses on studying the relationship of RNA G-quadruplex and human diseases. RNA G-quadruplex, a special structure formed by RNA sequences that can be found in human, plants, bacteria and viruses, can be a structural scaffold for protein binding and perform different functions. It plays a key role in the activation and repression of genes.
Dr Kwok pointed out that RNA G-quadruplex often affected the structure of mRNA and thus suppressed the formation of protein. If RNA G-quadruplex is forming in an oncogene, the oncoprotein (bad protein) will be inhibited, which may prevent it from forming cancer. However, if the RNA G-quadruplex is forming in the tumour suppressor gene, then the tumour suppressor protein (good protein) will be inhibited, which may lead to cancer.
Dr Kwok’s team is currently studying the RNA G-quadruplex’s relationship with gene regulation, cell development and cancer genes, with the objective to see if some of them can be promising biomarkers and therapeutic targets.
They have earlier reported the RNA G-quadruplex’s effect on gene regulation of amyloid precursor protein in Alzheimer's disease. The findings have been published in the international journal Chemical Science. The first author of the paper is Lyu Kaixin, PhD student from the Department of Chemistry.
The Croucher Foundation presented awards to nine distinguished scholars from three local universities in 2019 in appreciation of their outstanding research achievements. Dr Kwok and another CityU scientist received the Croucher Innovation Award 2019, which carries a value of up to $5 million over five years.
Dr Kwok said he felt honoured to receive the award and he thanked the Croucher Foundation for its trust in his work. He was also grateful to CityU, the Department of Chemistry and other funding bodies for their strong support.