Exploring cell therapy and cell-free therapy

14 October 2015

Harbouring a long-standing interest in stem cells, Dr Kathy Lui, 2009 Croucher fellow, has been investigating key areas of stem cell immunology, seeking to facilitate post-transplantation acceptance for stem cell-derived tissues, and to facilitate a better protection mechanism against degenerative diseases.

Stem cell research is currently carried out using embryonic stem cells, or the more recently discovered induced pluripotent stem cells. Striving to induce transplantation tolerance, Lui’s past research has explored how to induce transplantation tolerance of embryonic stem cells. While undertaking her PhD at the University of Oxford, UK, she successfully learnt the mechanism of inducing acceptance of such cells in mice models. Her lab is now focused on expanding this knowledge to induce acceptance in a human model to pave the way for application. In a 2014 Nature Communications paper published by Lui, she and her colleagues studied how human embryonic stem cells will be accepted in a human graft.

In addition to exploring the acceptance of transplanted stem cells, Lui’s lab is also focused on developing a parallel approach – cell-free therapy.

“During my time as a Croucher fellow pursuing post-doctoral research at Harvard University, instead of just looking deeper into stem cell therapy, I also wanted to know if there were better ways to do the same job, which is to eventually regenerate an organ.”

Although important to research, inducing acceptance of stem cells after transplantation cannot be viewed as a long-term solution. Other than the problem of the rejection of cells, there are other issues that may arise from stem cell transplantation like the short life span of successfully transplanted stem cells and whether or not transplantation needs to be considered as a regular therapy.

This prompted Lui to seek out an alternative therapy that reduces the reliance on transplantation of stem cells. By inducing regeneration of our own selves, we can reawaken cells in the body and amplify progenitor cells to carry out the regeneration. Progenitor cells, similar to stem cells, have the ability to differentiate into different, more specific cell types. However, they exist in minimal amounts and do not create much effect in repairing bodily systems without specific stimuli. If factors can be identified to induce regeneration, we only need to stimulate these mechanisms in order to cure ourselves from certain diseases.

Lui has studied how vascular regeneration could take place by inducing the blood vessel supply to the heart. Factors secreted by the induced blood vessel supply causes a direct effect on the progenitor cells, reawakening them and amplifying their abilities. In the case of injury, these cells could replace the damaged cell types and help cure the disease. Blood vessels are essential to development as they supply nutrients, oxygen as well as other factors to develop organs, thus facilitating their role in organ regeneration. Currently, Lui’s lab is focused on studying if this principle can be applied to other organ systems like the pancreas.

“This mechanism of curing diseases has a lot of potential as it is not restricted to one organ system. Also, taking into account that degenerative diseases are growing increasingly prominent due to the aging population, using regeneration as a cure is one of the safer ways to solve the problem and help the aged.”

Lui is currently an Associate Professor in the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences and Department of Chemical Pathology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has both a BSc and a MPhil from the Department of Biochemistry at Chinese University of Hong Kong. She was awarded the Dorothy Hodgkin Postgraduate Scholarship to complete her DPhil in Stem Cell Immunology at Oxford University after which, she was awarded the Croucher Foundation Fellowship in 2009 to continue her postdoctoral training at Harvard University in the field of Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University.

To view Dr Kathy Lui’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.

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