Asia’s Rising Scientists: Liu Kai

Could we one day help those with spinal cord injuries walk again? This month’s rising scientist Assistant Professor Liu Kai is working on it!

Liu Kai
Assistant Professor
Division of Life Science
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

AsianScientist (Dec. 16, 2015) – Spinal cord injuries strike suddenly and often permanently, putting loved activities beyond reach and creating physical barriers that take years to overcome.

Assistant Professor Liu Kai has been working tirelessly to restore hope and movement to people with spinal cord injuries, since receiving his PhD in Neuroscience from Rutgers University in 2006.

Earlier in 2015, Liu made a breakthrough in his quest to find a treatment for chronic spinal cord injuries when he successfully found a way to stimulate the growth of corticospinal tract axons, which are nerve fibers that control voluntary motor functions.

  1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?
  2. Why don’t injured axons spontaneously regenerate in the adult central nervous system? Can lost functions be restored after spinal cord injury?

  3. Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
  4. After receiving my PhD in 2006, I decided to work on the molecular mechanisms of axonal regeneration with Dr. He Zhigang at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. I focused on corticospinal tract (CST) central nervous system axons, which mediate voluntary fine motor control and are especially refractory to regeneration.

    By collaborating with other people in the lab, I found if we knock out a gene called Pten from CST prior to a spinal cord injury, these axons could regenerate through the lesion site and form synaptic connections with the caudal spinal cord.

    In 2011, I joined the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as an assistant professor and set up my own lab. We developed a strategy to modulate Pten/mTOR signaling in adult corticospinal motor neurons in the post-injury paradigm. It not only promoted the sprouting of uninjured CST axons, but also enabled the injured axons to regenerate, even when treatment was delayed up to one year after the original injury. This finding forms a solid base to investigate whether similar approaches could lead to functional recovery after chronic spinal cord injury.

    Members of the Liu lab. Credit: Liu Kai.
    Members of the Liu lab. Credit: Liu Kai.
  5. What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
  6. We always assume that axon regeneration is the ultimate approach to restoring lost functions, but the evidence is still slim. I hope that our research can at least lead to some idea about whether this strategy is fundamentally right or wrong.

  7. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
  8. I started working on spinal cord injuries since 1999 when I chose Dr. Wise Young at Rutgers University as my PhD mentor. I have always admired and looked up to him. He encouraged me to continue doing spinal cord injury research even when I wanted to deviate. And fortunately, I followed his advice.

  9. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
  10. As a researcher, I face failure every single day, because most of our ideas just do not work as expected. But I guess this is trivial. The biggest adversity, if I were to pick one, is probably the thought of giving up doing spinal cord injury research altogether. From 1999 to 2008, it took me nine years to actually see convincing evidence that axons of central neurons can regenerate in the spinal cord. My two mentors helped me walk through the hard times.

  11. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix it?
  12. In the field of life sciences, and likely others, the biggest challenge is probably that many bright and promising students are leaving the research track. We have produced too many PhDs but cannot offer them good positions. I am not sure that we have an easy and quick solution, but boosting the R&D industry is one of the many options.

  13. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
  14. I would have become a neurosurgeon. I know it is related to my research, but that is what I would like to do.

  15. Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
  16. Outside of the lab, I really enjoy watching my kids grow. I also play soccer once a week and it keeps me energetic.

    Liu Kai with his wife and children. Credit: Liu Kai.
    Liu Kai with his wife and children. Credit: Liu Kai.
  17. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
  18. If spinal cord injuries could be considered to be a world problem, then yes, this is what I would like to solve, and help people with this condition.

  19. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
  20. From where I am in Hong Kong, my immediate challenge is how to communicate with the outside world on the most latest research. I believe that going out for conferences is very crucial.

    For students, I still want to say that doing research you love while getting paid is the best job, just like an artist. But the prerequisite is that you have to be able to cope with failure, which you will face most of the time. It will eventually pay off if this is something you really want to do.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Liu Kai.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

David trained as a lawyer and historian at the University of Otago, New Zealand, before spending a decade living amongst accountants and financial reporting regulators in New Zealand and Singapore. He views science and technology through the eyes of a novice and loves to help others understand the world around us by turning technical information into clear and enjoyable stories.

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