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Breakthrough Highlights Brain Plasticity
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Breakthrough Highlights Brain Plasticity

According to the United Nations, the elderly population of the world is growing at its fastest rate ever, and the population of Hong Kong is one of the most rapidly aging in the world.

Prof Nancy Ip, HKUST's Dean of Science and a world renowned neuroscientist, and her research team at HKUST have achieved major breakthroughs in the development of new treatments against neurodegenerative diseases - disabling conditions, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, that affect the elderly.

Prof Ip's research primarily focuses on elucidating the functional roles of growth factors in neuronal differentiation, synapse formation and plasticity, and their potential applications in neurodegenerative diseases. She and her team have discovered novel proteins that regulate brain plasticity. Studies undertaken in Prof Ip's lab have identified new molecular players that can mediate changes in plasticity. "In many neurodegenerative disorders, brain cell communication is impaired, which then leads to cognitive dysfunctions. By determining the mechanisms that underlie normal brain functions, we can understand what goes wrong under diseased conditions," Prof Ip explains. The pathways identified by the team are novel and have opened new avenues for other researchers. Prof Ip has published over 210 scientific papers with more than 14,000 citations.
"Our interest is primarily in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, and lately we have also started to study psychiatric disorders," she says. "We are screening Chinese medicine to look for active ingredients that may help to alleviate symptoms of these diseases. Good progress has been made and discussions are underway with pharmaceutical companies to further develop these potential drug leads. In fact, we have a number of projects planned with multinational pharmaceutical companies to investigate the properties of the lead compounds and are conducting pre-clinical studies." The research is being conducted at the Division of Life Science, which was formed by integrating the Departments of Biochemistry and Biology in 2010.

HKUST's unremitting efforts and excellence in research of neuro-diseases has been recognized by China's Ministry of Science and Technology through the establishment of the State Key Laboratory (SKL) of Molecular Neuroscience at HKUST in 2010. The SKL of Molecular Neuroscience is the only SKL at HKUST and among only 12 in Hong Kong. Furthermore, a joint "GSK R&D China - HKUST Neuroscience Laboratory" has also been set up at HKUST through an initiative with GlaxoSmithKline R&D China, a subsidiary of GSK, the world's second largest pharmaceutical company. This strategic collaboration is focused on determining the molecular mechanisms underlying the pathologies of neurodegenerative diseases, and developing therapeutic drugs.

Prof Ip is the recipient of a number of prestigious awards, including the National Natural Science Award and the L'Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award, which she won in 2004.

Taking up the deanship of the School of Science in 2011, Prof Nancy Ip's vision for the School is to be "a premier research-intensive School, through leadership, innovative education and cutting-edge research." A world renowned scientist and dedicated educator, Prof Ip is a strong advocate of undergraduate research and the importance of exposing students to a variety of disciplines. "We believe that through multi-disciplinary training, we can nurture our students to have passion for learning, to be independent and critical thinkers, and essentially equip them with the skills they need to meet future challenges."