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Hong Kong Profile: Leo Poon Lit-man

Written by
Jeremy Chan
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A molecular virologist who’s waging war on influenza


Throughout history, learned men and women across the world have worked tirelessly to find cures for those diseases which threaten the future of the human race. Some of these scientists change the course of history and others just slip under the radar but, regardless of their fame, without these people who slave away in the lab we could all have been wiped out by now.


One of these hardworking scientists on a mission to wipe out disease before it wipes out us is Hongkonger Prof Leo Poon Lit-man. The professor and molecular virologist at the University of Hong Kong specialises in emerging infectious diseases. He’s been working for more than two decades in a bid to battle the ever-spreading, ever-mutating influenza virus which is now particularly pertinent in our city. If the 44-year-old scientist can find a universal vaccine that every human across the world can be given, he may quite literally, save the world.


Influenza is a viral infection that’s often called ‘the flu’. But also the term ‘flu’ can be wrongly given to any old common cold. The real influenza virus is more than just a snotty nose or an upset stomach as it causes fever, aching, breathing problems and in extreme circumstances, death. A flu shot as a vaccine is the best way to make sure you don’t get it in the first place but more often than not, these shots are geared towards a specific strain. What Prof Poon is trying to discover is a universal vaccine which would eventually kill off the virus altogether.


Prof Poon has spent more than 20 years researching the spread of the virus over the course of history. He’s a witty and, obviously, highly qualified scientist who speaks to us about how he plans to wipe influenza off the face of the Earth. He tells us he was the one who actually exposed the genetic sequence of the SARS coronavirus in 2003 and he adds that he’s ‘on the brink’ of developing the universal vaccine to target all strains, including H7N9, more commonly known as ‘bird flu’ that’s caused panic across the globe in recent years.


Prof Poon, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, was trained at Oxford University in the UK. After receiving his postdoctoral qualifications there, he returned to our city in 1999 and worked at Chinese University for a year as a postdoctoral fellow. He then started his tenure at Hong Kong University and has been there ever since, becoming a professor and the division head of the Public Health Laboratory Services department. Since his move to the university and, certainly since SARS, he’s been toiling away in his lab, trying to piece together a faster method of detecting influenza and, thus, stopping its spread. When he uncovered the SARS coronavirus sequence in 2003, allowing for a more efficient diagnosis of the disease, he says this really pushed his work to new heights. “I was the first one to decode the sequence,” he says. “At Chinese University, I learned how to handle clinical specimens and how to develop diagnostic tests for emerging pathogens. I hadn’t learned about that before then. This then helped me develop molecular tests to identify which samples contained the virus.” Poon explains that by looking at the samples at the time, the tests were able to prove whether suspected patients were infected by the coronavirus much quicker. “Basically,” he says, “the virus has an RNA (ribonucleic acid) genome or segment. I found a partial sequence of the genome, which was a world first, and that was enough to make a diagnostic test. It’s something I’m very proud of.”


Prof Poon avidly speaks about why he chose to focus on influenza. “Even though the genome of the influenza virus is very small,” he says, “it induces so much damage. It really struck me back then [during SARS]. At the time I didn’t know much about it but I knew the virus was a very important pathogen that affected humans and that’s what I was most interested in. Basically, we need to better control these pathogens in humans and also prevent the viruses jumping from animals to humans.”


According to the professor, he’s since discovered a key protein found in bacteria that mimics the one in the H7N9 virus. He and his team have experimented by administering the new protein into mice. Prof Poon says the team have been ‘shocked’ to find that the mice have become capable of developing antibodies against the virus, thus shielding them against viral mutations. “So,” he says, “if mice get infected, their antibodies react and try to control this infection.” Prof Poon adds that due to the new protein, the chance of the mice later catching influenza in any form has been reduced by between 80 and 100 percent. That’s huge.


These findings are, obviously, massively exciting for Prof Poon and his team, as well as, hopefully, in due course, the entire world. So he’s now developing the universal vaccine using this new protein. Many vaccines already exist on the market but, according to the professor, they’re only applicable to certain virus subtypes and fail to address infections once a virus mutates. He says the medical industry must be well equipped in the event of a new pandemic, like what happened with SARS and bird flu. However, he says, until his research receives more funding and more tests are able to be conducted, the vaccine can’t be perfected and, thus, it isn’t even close to being at a stage where it can be mass produced. “More testing needs to take place with different sorts of animals,” he says, “and to start human clinical trials will require a lot of money – so the main hurdle right now is actually funding.”


Nevertheless, despite the financial setbacks he’s facing, Prof Poon remains undeterred and looks forward to advancements in science and technology to aid his research. “I look forward to using next generation sequencing technology to better understand this pathogen,” he says, “so that we can develop better tools to control the spread of the influenza virus.” As a scientist, Prof Poon tells us he’s inspired by those scientists who put themselves on the line. “We scientists are passionate,” he says, “which is why we dedicate our lives to addressing these problems.”


To find out more about Prof Poon’s work, head to hub.hku.hk/cris/rp/rp00484.

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