Channel to Life

Prof. Chan Hsiao-chang (2nd left, front row) and her research team

Prof. Chan Hsiao-chang’s interest in ion channels and epithelial cells started during her post-doctoral training at the University of Chicago when the scientific world heralded the cloning of the CFTR gene which encodes an epithelial ion channel. The focus of the scientific community then was on the role that CFTR plays in the lung disease associated with Cystic Fibrosis. Professor Chan, on the other hand, was intrigued by the wide spectrum of disorders, including infertility, resulting from the mutations of CFTR. Since CFTR can regulate and interact with a large number of other ion channels, Professor Chan’s interests went beyond CFTR to study epithelial ion channels to understand the pathogenesis of a wide spectrum of pathological conditions and diseases in our body.

Professor Chan was able to further her research interest in ion channels and signal transduction in epithelial cells when she joined the Department of Physiology at CUHK in 1993 and collaborated with Prof. Patrick Y.D. Wong, whose work on the epithelial cells of the male reproductive tract inspired her to investigate the female reproductive tract and to understand how epithelial ion channels affect reproductive events in both male and female tracts.

Solving mysteries surrounding reproduction

Over the years, Professor Chan has played a significant role in a number of important discoveries in reproduction. Her team has provided a novel explanation to the reduced fertility in women with CFTR mutations. They also elucidated how CFTR affects sperm function and male fertility. Recently, her team has solved a long-standing mystery of how embryo implantation is initiated, by discovering the signaling mechanism mediated by an epithelial sodium channel. These discoveries shed new lights on our understanding of how life is reproduced.

From basic research to future clinical application

In 1999, Professor Chan collaborated with Prof. Zhang Yonglian of the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences to investigate sperm maturation in the epididymis. They discovered a novel defensin peptide in the male reproductive tract with dual function, fighting bacteria and promoting sperm motility. This pioneering discovery led to many follow-up discoveries by others on defensins in the male reproductive tract and provided new ground for the development of diagnosis and treatment methods for male infertility or contraception. Her recent collaboration with Shenzhen Second People’s Hospital on defensins further opened up new applications in assisted reproduction.

A research platform for epithelial cell biology

The versatile role of epithelial ion channels, CFTR in particular, and the importance of epithelial cells in body functions prompted Professor Chan to establish the Epithelial Cell Biology Research Center (ECBRC), a joint effort between CUHK and the Academy of Military Medical Science with the help and support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

By adopting a multidisciplinary approach with epithelial cells as an interface, the ECBRC platform has attracted many world class authorities from different parts of the world to collaborate in this cutting edge research. The various collaborations have given rise to ground-breaking works published in Science, The Lancet, Nature Medicine, Nature Cell Biology and PNAS.

Research in epithelial cell biology has also fostered the next generation of scientists in CUHK like Prof. Jiang Xiaohua, Prof. Sidney Yu and Prof. Ruan Yechun from ECBRC who are well on their way to exploring new frontiers in this area.