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Eyes, heart, skin, kidneys & blood: what’s the state of play with stem cell research?

by Niall Byrne | Jul 30, 2018

“Some of you might think that space is the final frontier, but I’m here to tell you it’s actually your skin.”

That’s the view of Curtain University’s Pritinder Kaur, whose research is exploring how skin stem cells can help in wound healing and understanding skin diseases.

She described how skin grafts from stem cell-derived tissues can provide the protective barrier—with a moving example of a boy with butterfly skin, whose life was saved by stem cell-derived new skin. But they're yet to provide other skin functions, such as the sense of touch.

 She was one of five expert panellists who joined host Megan Munsie for a public forum bringing stem cell science to people with questions about its use and potential.

Susie Nilsson (CSIRO and the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University) explained how blood stem cells are already saving lives, and where improvements are being made.

Michael O'Connor (Western Sydney University) explains how stem cells may provide tissue for transplantation, for drug testing, and how a library of stem cells from patients can help us understand eye diseases better. He also outlined the potential for therapies for cataracts, damaged corneas and macular degeneration.

Cardiologist and 2016 Metcalf Prize winner James Chong (The Westmead Institute and University of Sydney) talked about cardiovascular disease—the biggest killer in the world—and the potential to regrow cardiac cells after a heart attack.

Chronic kidney disease is increasing at a rate of about seven per cent per annum. But one in four patients will receive transplants. This inspires the research of Melissa Little (Murdoch Children's Research Institute and The University of Melbourne) who talked about growing kidney tissue in the lab.

Once you are born there are no stem cells about to make new nephrons (the miniscule filtering units of kidneys). However, Melissa Little and her colleagues are making induced pluripotent stem cells from skin cells, then developing complex, functioning mini-kidneys from them.

 Questions from the audience ranged from travelling for treatments such as multiple sclerosis (MS) to what inspired the panellists to become stem cell scientists.

Megan Munsie warned potential ‘stem cell tourists’ to be wary of clinics that don't have expertise in treating their particular condition, which can happen in treatments offered here and overseas, and outside of clinical trials.

Michael shocked his fellow panellists by admitting he was fascinated by sci-fi appeal of the Vacanti mouse, grown to look like it had a human ear on its back! Pritinder said that stem cells distracted her from cancer research. James explained that, as a doctor specialising in cardiology, he was tired of patching up damaged hearts and decided he wanted new tissue.

The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia was proud to sponsor this event, working alongside Stem Cells Australia, the Australasian Society for Stem Cell Research and the International Society for Stem Cell Research, to give the Australian public an opportunity to hear from the top scientists in town for the ISSCR 2018 Annual Meeting.

You can now watch the full event video recording here.

As host and organiser Megan Munsie says in the introduction, “We hope that after tonight’s presentations and the opportunity for you to ask questions, you’ll know a little bit more about what stem cell research is, what stem cells do in the body and possible the applications of stem cell science for the future.”


Resources

We aim to:

  • Promote the study and use of stem cells

  • Prevent or control diseases or illness

  • Enhance public education about stem cells