December 2017

From Australian of the Year to Zika—the big stem cell stories of 2017; and meet a cancer survivor/scientist

Welcome to the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia’s bulletin on stem cell medicine and research in Australia—our last one for the year.

This year’s big stories…

2017 saw more cautionary tales in the media about dubious treatments and practises. For example, ‘superstar’ surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who made artificial replacement windpipes with stem cells and scaffolding materials, was found to have committed research fraud and was investigated by Swedish prosecutors.

After two rounds of public consultations, the Therapeutic Goods Administration finally announced that 2018 will see long-awaited reforms to the regulation of stem cell therapies in Australia. We hope to see better protections for vulnerable patients.

Sound research into the real potential of stem cells has continued. Functioning mini-organs have been created in the lab, the US biotech company ViaCyte has started phase I clinical trials of a stem cell-based treatment for type 1 diabetes, and it’s been discovered that the Zika virus kills brain cancer stem cells.

This year’s prize news…

Australian stem cell scientists received recognition throughout the year, starting with the announcement of pioneering nasal stem cell researcher Alan Mackay-Sim as the 2017 Australian of the Year.

Breast stem cell and cancer research pioneers Jane Visvader and Geoffrey Lindeman were awarded the 2017 Victoria Prize for Science & Innovation.

Elizabeth Rakoczy from the Lions Eye Institute, who is using viruses to restore sight, won the CSL Florey Medal for lifetime achievement in medical research. She has also been a pioneer of the use of stem cells to treat eye diseases. Read more about her here.

And our 2017 Metcalf Prize winners Mark Dawson and Jessica Mar have been formally awarded their Prizes for their research achievements in leukaemia and ageing stem cells, respectively. They are receiving recognition for their work here and overseas. Read on for details.

In this bulletin, we also meet stem cell scientist and cancer survivor Ngaire Elwood—a life saved by science is now giving back. More below.

The end of this bulletin includes our regular roundup of links to stories we’ve recently shared via social media.

Over the Christmas break, we will share more of the year’s top stories of stem cell science on Twitter using the hashtag #StemCellsIn2017.

On behalf of the Foundation, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a safe and happy New Year.

Kind regards,

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

In this bulletin:

  • From breakfast with the Chief Scientist to presenting science in media and America
  • How cancer influenced a scientist’s life and medical research career
  • Stem cell news from around the world

From breakfast with the Chief Scientist to presenting science in media and America

2017 Metcalf Prize winners recognised at award ceremony and beyond

Professor Mark Dawson and Associate Professor Jessica Mar formally received their Metcalf Prizes from Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel AO at a recent breakfast at The Athenaeum Club in Melbourne.

At the 2017 Metcalf Prize breakfast. From left to right: Foundation chairman Graeme Blackman, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, prize winners Jessica Mar and Mark Dawson, and Foundation executive officer Julia Mason

The Metcalf Prizes gave us a unique opportunity to give government leaders an insight into the work of some of our top scientists.

Mark Dawson has helped build a new drug to fight an aggressive form of blood cancer.

He discovered the basic science of gene expression in acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), helped develop a drug to block that action, and is leading an international clinical trial to test it.

Jessica Mar is analysing stem cells to discover the changes that influence ageing.

Throughout our lives, stem cells repair and replace our tissues, but as we age they stop working as well. Jessica is working to understand how and why this happens, and what this means for healthy longevity.

In addition to Dr Finkel, Victoria’s Lead Scientist Dr Amanda Caples, Associate Professor Megan Munsie of Stem Cells Australia, members of the Foundation’s board, and past Metcalf Prize winners Professor Christine Wells and Dr Tracy Heng also attended the breakfast. It was delightful to see Tracy and Mark, fellow leukaemia researchers, compare notes.

Since the announcement of the prize winners, Jessica has been profiled in Cosmos magazine. She explains that the superpower of stem cells is indefinite self-replication, but their ‘kryptonite’ is the ageing process in humans.

Read ‘Friday profile: Stem cells by the numbers’ in Cosmos.

Since the breakfast, Mark has travelled to the USA to present the results of the phase I trial of the leukaemia treatment drug he helped develop at the American Hematology Society’s annual conference. His trial has established the drug’s safety and that it’s well tolerated by patients. This provided the basis to progress the treatment to a phase II trial, which is currently underway.

Congratulations again to Mark and Jessica, and thank you to the judging panel for volunteering their time and passion. Thank you also to our generous breakfast host The Athenaeum Club.

Past Metcalf Prize winners’ news

Work continues unlocking the secrets of cell reprogramming with one of our inaugural 2014 Metcalf Prize winners Jose Polo leading a series of studies that have just been published in highly regarded journals Nature Methods, Cell Stem Cell, and Cell Reports.  Jose co-led the study published in Cell Stem Cell with 2015 Metcalf Prize winner Ryan Lister.

Meet the Metcalf Prize alumni.

How cancer influenced a scientist’s life and medical research career

Meet Ngaire Elwood: cancer survivor and scientist

Ngaire Elwood’s life was saved by science. As a teenager, she was treated for osteosarcoma, a common form of bone cancer that had a survival rate of about five per cent prior to the advent of chemotherapy.

Scientist and survivor Ngaire ElwoodNow she’s helping others survive cancer, matching donated cord blood to patients who need it and conducting research into the further medical potential of stem cell-rich cord blood.

After her bone cancer diagnosis, her treatment involved an above-knee amputation, followed by 18 months of high-dose chemotherapy. Even with this ‘aggressive therapy’ the survival rate is about 60 per cent.

“This really influenced what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to work on better and more specific, targeted ways of treating cancer,” Ngaire says.

Ngaire is now head of the Cord Blood Stem Cell Research Program at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and director of Melbourne’s cord blood bank.

Her research includes exploring the different types of stem cells that are in cord blood, investigating the use of cord blood in heart repair and the treatment of cerebral palsy, and improving the use of cord blood in bone marrow transplants for treating blood cancers and other diseases.

Ngaire and her team are also doing research towards establishing a different type of stem cell bank that produces induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells derived from cord blood.

“In the future it’s envisaged that there will be a network of these banks around the world with specific stem cell lines registered on an international registry, like the current bone marrow donor registry. Patients requiring cells of a particular tissue type will be able to access the bank, and a provider will derive the cells of interest—for example, islet cells for insulin—from the matching IPS cell lines registered.”

Ngaire says that it’s rare for researchers to see the direct applications of what they’re working on.

“One of the things I love about working at the cord blood bank is knowing that every packet of cord blood we send out to patients carries the hope of a cure. That’s quite personally satisfying, while I’m also doing research that’s probably a long way from the clinic.”

In 2013, Ngaire had a second brush with cancer—this time breast cancer—with treatment involving chemotherapy and surgery. So far, all is good.

“It makes you really grateful that all that basic research is going on. Back in the seventies the role of oestrogen receptors in breast cancer was being nutted out. This led to the use of oestrogen receptor-blocking drugs. In 2013, I became the recipient of the outcomes of that research.”

Ngaire continues to be excited by her field, particularly the explosion of research in immunology and cell therapies.

“To see that whole field now providing cures for people who otherwise wouldn’t be here—it’s just amazing.”

Read Ngaire’s researcher profile on the MCRI website.

Stem cell news from around the world

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

Here are a few stories we’ve shared recently:

The Guardian: Dr Con Man: the rise and fall of a celebrity scientist who fooled almost everyone

The Stem Cellar (CIRM): ViaCyte treats first patients in PEC-Direct stem cell trial for type 1 diabetes

Science Daily: Zika virus kills brain cancer stem cells

veski: Professors Jane Visvader and Geoffrey Lindeman awarded the 2017 Victoria Prize for Science & Innovation

Stanford Medicine: Stem cells that generate fat tissue have circadian clock. Paper

Medical Xpress: Growing pancreatic stem cells for research on diabetes

Science Alert: Schizophrenia begins during pregnancy, new evidence suggests. Paper

ABC Science: Human Cell Atlas: The plan to map every cell in your body

Cosmos magazine: Public or private? The dilemma of cord blood banking

Medical Xpress: Stem cells pave the way for new treatment of diabetes. Paper

The Scientist: Swedish ethics review board: Macchiarini is guilty

The Conversation: Finally, unproven stem cell clinic practices might be curtailed

Science Daily: Stem cells conduct cartilage regeneration but are not directly involved Researchers reveal how stem cells make decisions. Paper

Science Daily: Inflammation trains the skin to heal faster. Paper.

UCLA Newsroom: Better ‘mini brains’ could help scientists identify treatments for Zika-related brain damage

The Verge: Scientists used human stem cells to build a new rat intestine. Paper.

About the Foundation

The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia is an ATO-registered tax-deductible Health Promotion Charity dedicated to promoting the study and responsible use of stem cells to reduce the burden of disease.

The Foundation’s activities include:

  • supporting research that pursues cures for as-yet-untreatable diseases
  • building a community of people with a shared interest in stem cell science
  • providing the Australian public with objective, reliable information on both the potential and risks of stem cell medicine.

We are working to build a community of people with a stake in stem cell science and to promote collaboration between scientists locally and internationally.

Please feel free to contact the Foundation’s Executive Officer Julia Mason via


We aim to:

  • Promote the study and use of stem cells

  • Prevent or control diseases or illness

  • Enhance public education about stem cells