December 2012

Stem cell scientists meet patients at vision forum; a new online resource; and celebrating stem cell researchers

From Dr Graeme Blackman, Chairman of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

Welcome to my occasional bulletin on stem cell science in Australia.

It was my privilege to meet with patients hoping to benefit from stem cell therapies last month at a forum on stem cells for vision, sponsored by our new Foundation.

It reminded me that there's a lot of excitement and hope for stem cell therapies, but also fear and worry.

One of the reasons we created the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia is to help patients and the public understand the benefits and limitations of stem cell research. We hope that our new website will be one of the tools in guiding people through the promise, and the reality of stem cell medicine.

Australia has some remarkable researchers in the field. One of the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science went to a Peter MacCallum researcher who is using his experience in stem cell science to change the way researchers view, approach and treat cancer.

And in October the NHMRC awarded $12 million to stem cell science across the country.

As we develop the Foundation, we look forward to promoting this research and to being able to fund a small number of projects ourselves.

You'll hear more the Foundation's plans at our formal launch in February. Keep an eye out for an invitation early next year.

Finally, on behalf of the Foundation I would like to wish our friends and colleagues a safe and happy festive season as we look forward to an exciting New Year.

Kind regards,

Dr Graeme L Blackman OAM
Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

In this newsletter: 

Biotechnology for vision forum brings substance to hope

Stem cell medicine, like many new technologies, is complex.

Researchers and clinicians need to understand the hopes and fears of the patient community; patients need to understand the challenges and potential of regenerative medicine.

A recent event was a unique opportunity for these groups to come together and learn directly from each other.

'Re-seeing the future: how technology may restore vision', a public forum we sponsored at last month's AusBiotech conference, looked at the potential of stem cell medicine to prevent blindness and restore sight.

The audience question time was, perhaps, the most moving and valuable part of the forum. These opportunities to engage with people, hear their concerns and gauge their understanding of biotechnology and stem cell science are invaluable.

Many people attended because they themselves, or a loved one, are living with vision loss. Two sisters, one blind and the other with normal vision, attended together. One young man who has lived with the inherited degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa had new questions now that he has become a father.

The questions from the audience reflected a broader trend in the public understanding of what science has to offer people with vision loss, many of whom desperately want reasons to hope they will see again. The success of the cochlear implant or 'bionic ear' has led many people to assume the bionic eye is a potential cure for all eye problems.

When people realise the limitations of the bionic eye, the next possible 'silver bullet' they look to is stem cells. At the Foundation, we recognise a clear need to manage community expectations of stem cell technologies and regenerative medicine, and importantly to do so with compassion.

This forum was a great opportunity to bring together the broader public and experts from stem cell research, bionics and diseases of the eye.

Dr Feelgood speaks at "Re-seeing the Future" (Credit: Australian Optometry)

Hosted by popular media medic Dr Sally Cockburn (aka Dr Feelgood), the expert panel featured:

  • Professor Jonathan Crowston, Head Glaucoma Research Unit and Managing Director of the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), provided an overview of the major causes of vision loss and an introduction to the anatomy of the eye.
  • Professor Robyn Guymer, Head Macular Research Unit, CERA and Bionic Vision, updated the audience on the progress of bionic eye research in Australia and its potential for the treatment of two particular causes of vision loss: age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.
  • Dr Alice Pébay, Head Neuroregeneration Unit, CERA, described the potential to use stem cells to develop various types of cells for the eye, how they might facilitate cell replacement and ultimately treat eye conditions. Dr Pébay also spoke of the scientific challenge of getting stem cells to reproduce to the type and number we want without risking uncontrolled growth, leading to tumours.
  • Ms Maryanne Diamond, General Manager International and Stakeholder Relations, Vision Australia, spoke from the perspective of someone who has lived with blindness. She encouraged members of the audience with vision loss to seek credible information and to make the most of their lives, which can still be rich and fulfilling, even with limited eyesight.

Web resources for teachers and students, patients and carers  

If you Google the term 'stem cells', you get a wide-and alarming-array of results.

Part of the Foundation's mission is to give the community clear, accurate and balanced information. It is vitally important that the public has access to the evidence-based information they need to make informed choices. They also need help identifying sources of false hope.

The internet is crowded with information and misinformation, responding to the very real needs and questions of people with serious illnesses. As well as the sites of reputable scientific and medical organisations, there are sites produced by well-meaning but poorly informed groups, and sadly some sites produced by modern snake oil merchants.

The Foundation hopes our new website will become an authoritative, reassuring voice online.

The Stem Cell Foundation website - - includes:

Much of this material is drawn from the resources created by the Australian Stem Cell Centre.

You'll also find more details on the Foundation's governance, supporters and stakeholders, and my colleagues on the board of directors.

There is also a secure online donation mechanism, which enables people and organisations to make tax-deductable donations to the Foundation.

Understanding stem cells, cancer cells, melanoma and breast cancer

Mark Shackleton wins the Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

When he was five, Mark Shackleton's grandmother asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. "I am going to cure cancer," came the confident reply amid raucous family laughter.

Although he's not there yet, the winner of the 2012 Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, Dr Mark Shackleton, is using his experience in stem cell science to change the way researchers view, approach and treat cancer.

In his PhD studies on breast cancer at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) in Melbourne, Mark demonstrated for the first time that an entire solid organ - a functioning breast - could be grown from a single cell, a stem cell. He thus proved that, although rare, stem cells exist in solid organs and contribute importantly to normal organ function.

Along with other research at the time, this strengthened a prevailing view that cancers were organised like normal organs, maintained by cancerous stem cells that drove tumour growth. Mark then proceeded, however, to destroy that view and in the process turned the field of cancer research on its head.

In post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan on the deadly skin cancer known as melanoma, Mark showed that a high proportion of the cells in these tumours - at least one in four - is capable of producing cancerous offspring. This meant that instead of trying to seek out and destroy rare cancer stem cells, effective treatments for melanoma needed a scorched earth policy, attempting to kill as many tumour cells as possible.

Mark is now at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne undertaking further work on melanomas that suggests these tumours are intrinsically dynamic, changing their behaviour-sometimes dramatically and quickly-over time. That has huge implications if we are to develop new cancer treatments that provide lasting benefit to patients.

Watch a video introducing Mark Shackleton.


And read more about Mark's work at the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science website.

Stem cell news from around the world

Between newsletters, we share stem cell news on social media:

Here are a few of the stories we've shared recently:

The role of the stem cell advocate, via the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine

Wellcome Trust and MRC invest £13m to create a new national stem cell resource, via the Wellcome Trust

Nobel laureate Yamanaka warns of rogue "stem cell therapies", via Reuters

Considering a Stem Cell Treatment From a Clinic? Have a Listen, via the Huffington Post Healthy Living Blog

Deaf gerbils 'hear again' after stem cell cure, via BBC news

Stem Cells Australia researchers awarded NHMRC 2012 Project Grants, via Stem Cells Australia

What is the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia?

The Foundation is a legacy of the Australian Stem Cell Centre, Australia's first biotechnology Centre of Excellence, which wrapped up when their funding ended in 2011.

We felt that the outreach and research support work the Centre did was important, so we've established the Foundation as a charity to continue that work.

During its nine years of operation, the Centre was fortunate to receive many donations and bequests. When the Centre closed, their board and stakeholders agreed to transfer the residual funds to the Foundation.

Through the new Stem Cell Foundation, we'll continue to invest these funds in public education and research efforts. Over the coming months we'll start work to build the profile of the Foundation, announce our first grants, and invite the community to support the work of the Foundation.

We'll formally launch the Foundation along with our first grant early in the new year and follow that with a series of activities through 2013 to promote stem cell research and engage the public in thinking about the potential of stem cells to cure disease.

We also hope to build a community of people with a stake in stem cell science and to promote collaboration between scientists locally and internationally. One of the mechanisms will be this occasional email bulletin.

Please feel free to contact us at

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Help us grow

We're keen to build a community of people with a stake in stem cell science to educate the community and support patients, clinicians and researchers. Feel free to pass this newsletter on to anyone who might be interested.

Got a story?

If you have comments, questions or news you think might be of interest to the Stem Cell community, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line on Our next bulletin will be in February 2013.

Connect with us online:

Twitter: @AusStemCell

Youtube: Stem Cell Channel

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Sent by Science in Public on behalf of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.


We aim to:

  • Promote the study and use of stem cells

  • Prevent or control diseases or illness

  • Enhance public education about stem cells