History of the HKU-Pasteur Research Pole

History of the HKU-Pasteur Research Centre

The Institut Pasteur has long had important collaborations with Asia, beside those which still exist in Viet Nam and in Cambodia. In 1996, Mr Bernard Esambert, former chairman of the Institut Pasteur Board of Directors, discussed with Dr James Kung, chairman of the Chekiang First Bank. The latter told him he was keen to support the creation of an Institut Pasteur related Centre in China (in Hong Kong as a first step). In 1997, the General Consulate of France in Hong Kong materialized this initiative by organising a meeting between Pr Maxime Schwartz, former director of the Institut Pasteur, and the University of Hong Kong Vice-Chancellor. The latter offered to host and support this initiative, if it were made concrete. The final agreement was signed by Pr Philippe Kourilsky, former director of the Institut Pasteur. Through this collaboration with the University of Hong Kong, the Institut Pasteur revives its historical links with China, which happened to be one of the most important place for the discovery of emerging diseases.

Endemic in China, plague exploded from time to time into deadly epidemics. It is indeed in 1894 that Alexandre Yersin, who has trained under Louis Pasteur, discovered in a groundbreaking seven days the bacteria responsible for the terrifying Black Death Plague (still known after his name Yersinia pestis) in his mat-shed laboratory constructed in Hong Kong Island’s Kennedy Town district.

Owing to the participation of France in the military occupation of China, the presence of French medicine was significant in China at the beginning of the XXth century, at a time when the idea to spread the concepts of Pasteur’s vision was at its peak. As early as 1906, two projects for the creation of an Institut Pasteur in China were elaborated. A first one proposed Peking as the site for the creation, while the second one chose Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. After much difficulties, Docteur Aimé-François Legendre created an Institut Pasteur in that latter location in 1911. Its activity started with the arrival of its first director, Dr Jouveau-Dubreuil, and this Institute was active, despite the difficult political and military situation there, till 1927. Most of the work there consisted in preparing vaccine against small pox, with some 400,000 doses annualy, and a very high percentage of success. Some equipment was also sent to Peking, but this did not result in the creation of an institute there, despite the onset of a terrible pulmonary plague epidemy, which reached Peking in 1911.

In the 40ies (from 1938 to 1950) a Pasteur Institute was created in Shanghai. This Institute, devoted to programmes in vaccination research and vaccine production (vaccination against rabies and tuberculosis, ...), participated in vaccination campaigns against cholera. Collaborative efforts involving scientists from the Institut Pasteur in Paris and scientists from China are still actively ongoing today (Institut Pasteur’s press release).

An agreement between The University of Hong Kong and the Pasteur Institute was signed on October 16th, 1999 for the creation of the HKU-Pasteur Research Pole (HKU-PRP), a charitable organisation limited by guarantee with Hong Kong tax exempt status, controlled by a Board of Directors, chaired by Dr James Kung. The Centre was officially inaugurated on October 24th, 2000 and started under the direction of Pr Antoine Danchin and Pr Kwok-Yung Yuen, director and co-director of the Centre respectively. Their research focused on bacterial subtractive genomics and developed bacterial genome databases.

Following the SARS oubreak, which profoundly changed the perception of the risk from infectious diseases, HKU-PRP has focused, under the direction of Ralf Altmeyer, on host-pathogen interactions with particular emphasis on respiratory viruses and other viruses that represent a public health threat for Hong Kong and the region. Since October 2006, the Centre has been under the direction of Roberto Bruzzone and Malik Peiris. On December 17th, 2013 the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Institut Pasteur renewed their partnership by establishing the Hong Kong University-Pasteur Research Pole (HKU-PRP) under the School of Public Health of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, HKU. On March 3rd, 2017, the two prestigious institutions have renewed their partnership with a significant 10-year agreement for HKU-PRP.

HKU-PRP aims to be a distinctive medical research laboratory that brings together two existing world-class research and academic institutions, the Institut Pasteur and HKU, with the goal to improve health by developing new ways to treat diseases. Our vision is to generate biological knowledge to better understand and treat infectious diseases by tackling central biological questions that need to be addressed to define how viruses function and interact with their hosts in the cellular environment that constitutes their battleground.