2014 Innovation Award – Dr Stephanie Ma

28 August 2014

It was not until, as an undergraduate student, Dr Stephanie Ma joined a final year directed studies programme at the British Columbia Cancer Research Centre that she discovered a passion and a talent for scientific research.

Today, Ma is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anatomy of the University of Hong Kong, and the most recent recipient of the Croucher Innovation Award.

Croucher Innovation Awards are highly competitive awards offering substantial support over a period of five years to a very small number of talented scientists who must be working in Hong Kong at an internationally competitive level.

“With this funding, I will be able to explore unchartered areas in the field of liver cancer stem cells, as well as to set up materials and platforms needed to further advance my research work in the field,” Ma says.

Liver cancer is the third most common cause of cancer mortality in Hong Kong. However, despite advances in cancer therapy, it is difficult to make an accurate prediction of the likely course of the disease because there is limited understanding of the progressive developments of liver cancer, particularly in their cell of origin, cancer-initiating properties, inherent drug resistance and mechanisms of pathogenesis.

Ma’s research is timely in that she is setting out to identify, characterise and target therapeutically liver cancer stem cells.

She says, “Cancer is a heterogeneous disease and is composed of many different cell types. There is now evidence to show that there exists a subset of cells within the bulk of the tumor, called cancer stem cells, that is believed to be essential for tumor growth and recurrence.”

Ma’s group has identified CD133 as a functional marker of liver cancer stem cells, and has elucidated a number of key signaling pathways that are crucial in regulating tumor growth and self-renewal in this subpopulation of cells. Her research group is trying to further strengthen the understanding of liver cancer stem cell biology from multiple perspectives and provide a basis for further clinical developments of therapeutic approaches targeting this subset of cells.

Ma hopes that through understanding the origin, characteristics, function and underlying mechanism of cancer stem cells, new knowledge on cancer management and treatment, including their implications for prognosis, prediction, treatment resistance and tumor recurrence, can be discovered. “The results of these studies will hopefully translate into the clinic to save lives and improve patients’ quality of life; and also deliver concrete benefits to Hong Kong and our regional community including Mainland China,” she says.


                 
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