Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Michael Lai Ming-Chiao

A pioneer in coronavirus research, Michael Lai Ming-Chiao shares how a detour in his academic journey brought him to the battlefront of the SARS outbreak.

Michael Lai Ming-Chiao
Distinguished Research Fellow
Academia Sinica

AsianScientist (Nov. 13, 2017) – When Professor Michael Lai Ming-Chiao was invited back to set up a lab in his home country of Taiwan after spending years abroad conducting research in the US, he was hesitant. Used to the superb research infrastructure in the US, he wondered if he would be able to make as big a scientific impact in Asia.

As it turned out, his return to Taiwan was extremely timely. Having developed an expertise in coronaviruses during his stint in the US, he was well positioned to help local and regional authorities tackle the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

He led Taiwan’s national research SARS research program while concurrently serving as the Distinguished Fellow and Vice President of Academica Sinica, the National Academy of Taiwan, a position he held until 2006. Lai later assumed the post of President of National Cheng Kung University from 2007 to 2011, during which he helped spearhead research excellence and foster close collaborations with industries in Southern Taiwan.

Lai’s illustrious career has seen him elected to the American Academy of Microbiology and The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World. Among his many accolades are the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America Lifetime Achievement Award 2009, and, most recently, the Nikkei Asia Prize 2017 in the category of Science, Technology and Innovation.

  1. How did you first get interested in viruses in general and coronaviruses in particular?
  2. Back in the 1960s, when I was a medical student, the science of molecular biology was advancing at a breakneck pace. Coincidentally, viruses offer a very simple system for studying molecular biology. The capacity of viruses to cause different diseases, and the ability of scientists to control them, offer another exciting platform to do scientific research. That was when I decided to study viruses in my research career.

    I then entered the University of California at Berkeley for my graduate studies, where I chose an outstanding virologist, Professor Peter Duesberg, as my mentor and began my career as a virologist. Initially, I studied retroviruses, which are viruses that have an RNA genome and are known to cause certain tumors.

    Then I met a neurologist, Dr. L. Weiner, at the University of Southern California, where I was a faculty member. Weiner was investigating multiple sclerosis (MS), a demyelinating disease that caused chronic wasting, and had found a mouse model for MS using mouse hepatitis virus infection.

    This virus was known to belong to the coronavirus family, but very little was known about it at that time. He persuaded me to join his research on this virus. I did, and the rest is history.

    Lai as an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California.

  3. Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?
  4. My determination to become a scientist began very early in my life. My uncle was a professor of chemical engineering at a university in Taiwan. He was an excellent scientist, having many publications in international scientific journals.

    He frequently talked about the joy of doing scientific research, which left a deep impression on me. Once I entered medical school, I was already committed to the idea of being a physician-scientist.

  5. What was your response when you were first asked to return to Taiwan in 2003?
  6. I was asked to return to Taiwan to assume a position in Academia Sinica before the SARS outbreak. It was a decision that disrupted my academic planning at that time. It took me a long time to finally accept the challenge of trying to improve the quality of science and health in Asia by giving up the superb research infrastructure in the US.

    I did not realize beforehand that my virologist background would have direct positive impacts on the health of Taiwan and the rest of Asia. By the time I returned to Taiwan in 2003, SARS was in full swing. I am glad that my return to my home country was so timely.

    It was an agonizing decision, but I am glad that I did return to Taiwan. But I have always wondered: who had the foresight to recognize the impending threat of SARS and recruit a coronavirologist like myself to Taiwan?

  7. What was the biggest lesson that we learnt from the 2003 SARS outbreak?
  8. First of all, infectious diseases caused by viruses continue to emerge and re-emerge. Recent examples include the AIDS, Ebola, dengue fever and Zika virus outbreaks. Viruses have hardly been conquered yet. The euphoria over the control of polio by poliovirus vaccines in the 60s and 70s is over.

    I have often said, “Viruses are smarter than virologists”. This statement is not too far from truth. We have to continue to search for and prevent or control these serious viruses. SARS may be gone, but it will come back. Indeed, it has already come back in another form, called the Middle East Acute Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has had several outbreaks in the Middle East and Asia, particularly Korea.

    Second, public health measures can be sufficient to control an infectious disease. There was no specific anti-SARS drug or vaccine; yet, the outbreak was brought under control within only one or two years after its appearance.

    This success was largely the result of rigorous isolation and quarantine of the patients and potential contacts, alongside good medical care and other public health measures. These measures and medical infrastructure are the keys; they are almost like national defense spending—every country needs to invest in them, but you hope that you never have to use them

    Third, basic science is very important for the health and wellbeing of every country. For example, coronavirus research was not an eye-catching scientific discipline before SARS, thus, it was considered a basic science. However, the knowledge from research on coronaviruses became immediately translatable to clinical use and indispensable for policy decisions to control SARS.

    Lai at a meeting in Taiwan during the SARS outbreak.

  9. 14 years after SARS, do you think Asia is sufficiently prepared for the next big outbreak?
  10. I do think most Asian countries nowadays recognize the importance of viral infectious diseases and have built infrastructure to deal with these threats. For example, in Taiwan, there are sufficient medical facilities and public health standard operating protocols to deal with emerging infectious diseases.

    However, the poverty and overcrowding in certain parts of Asia render these defense systems porous. Viruses travel between different countries without a passport. The world behaves as one body in the eyes of infectious diseases. Hence, all Asian countries should band together in the fight against viral infection.

  11. What are you researching at the moment?
  12. My laboratory has always been interested in various kinds of RNA viruses. In addition to coronaviruses, we have been studying the hepatitis C virus, the hepatitis delta virus, and more recently, the dengue and influenza viruses.

    We are particularly interested in the mechanisms of viral replication and pathogenesis. It is remarkable that each virus has its own unique characteristics. So, studying different viruses is intellectually challenging and gives me new perspectives of viruses all the time.

    At the moment, we are keenly researching the influenza virus because it causes severe outbreaks every year. There is no universal vaccine for the influenza virus, making annual vaccination necessary. The economic burden caused by influenza is staggering.

    Therefore, I devote most of my lab’s energy and resources to studying this virus, hoping to identify new targets for preventing and treating influenza.

  13. What would you say is your most significant scientific contribution?
  14. Because my lifetime research efforts were devoted to several different virus families, sometimes it is difficult for me to single out any particular body of research for recognition.

    But if I have to do it, I would say that I am most proud of the accumulating body of pioneering studies on the structure of the viral genome and the replication strategy of coronavirus. These works unveil many new features of the molecular biology of RNA viruses in general, and laid the groundwork for understanding the SARS virus when it appeared in China in 2003.

    We discovered the unusual genome arrangement of coronavirus, showed the unique transcription strategy of the virus and identified the RNA recombination phenomena.

    My work on hepatitis delta virus RNA also constitutes a group of pioneering studies focusing on a circular RNA. We showed the ribozyme activity associated with viral RNA and characterized the unusual rolling circle mechanism of RNA replication and transcription.

    Lai working at his lab bench at the University of Southern California.

  15. You are also an accomplished musician and a runner. How have these interests played a part in your career as a scientist?
  16. First of all, I have to clarify your statement that I am an accomplished musician—I am just an avid amateur violinist. I still play the violin for approximately an hour every day. Just like running, music clears my mind and gives me new energy and fresh ideas for my scientific research.

    Appreciation of the beauty of nature is the essence of science. In this sense, great scientific discoveries are equivalent to beauty of nature. So, music and running continue to revitalize my energy for scientific research.

    Lai at a violin performance in a recital in 2010.

    Lai after a half marathon in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan, 2008.

  17. What is the state of science in Taiwan compared to other countries in Asia and the world?
  18. When I returned to Taiwan in 2003, the research infrastructure for molecular biology there was just starting to be modernized. With the infusion of government support and many talented students, scientific research began to flourish.

    I was astonished to find that some government research organizations, such as Academia Sinica, are better equipped than the comparable laboratories in the US. The research productivity in Taiwan also gradually caught up with the best of the world.

    However, in recent years, corresponding with the downturn of economy in Taiwan, research funding has decreased, and the students’ enthusiasm for high-end research has also dipped. Thus, there is a shortage of PhD students.

    As a result, there is a significant decline in Taiwan’s competitive position in scientific and industrial research among the Asian giants. This is particularly evident if you compare the level of funding for top universities in Taiwan with that of China, Singapore or Korea.

    Also, an increasing number of Taiwanese students choose to work overseas in view of the scarce positions and low salaries in Taiwan. This is quite alarming for scientific research in Taiwan.

  19. In your opinion, what are the qualities needed to be a successful scientist?
  20. First of all, curiosity and originality. You must have the curiosity to ask questions, and ask them in a unique way that distinguishes your line of enquiry from others.

    The difference between good and mediocre research is often the question asked, all else being equal. One definition of originality is “the ability to ask questions”. An inability to ask questions, or good questions, is often the weakness of Asian students. Originality can be trained.

    Second, working hard. The more effort you put into a project, the better the chances you have of getting good results. There is a good correlation between the amount of effort and the degree of success.

    Third, persistence. If you persist on a project, you are more likely to succeed than if you switch projects often. In particular, if you pursue hot topics aimlessly, you are more likely to fail.

    A ‘hot’ topic can become cold all of a sudden. For example, I did not care about whether the coronavirus was a hot subject or not; I simply did the research because it interested me; then it became a hot topic all of a sudden!

    Fourth, interpersonal skills. The scientific community is like any other human organization, requiring interactions between people. With good personal relations, you are more likely to get help in times of need, and get things done.

    And finally, good luck!

A fortune cookie Lai received in the 1970s.

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


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Michael M.C. Lai.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

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