February 2013

Stem Cell Foundation in February: skin cells to eye cells; cancer and stem cells; and a cautionary tale

Today we announced our first research grant and launched the Foundation at the Centre for Eye Research Australia in Melbourne.

Dr Kathryn Davidson will be turning skin cells into eye cells to help discover how an incurable form of blindness develops.

It was a pleasure to introduce Kathryn to guests from government, science, patient groups and the media at the event.

I also shared the Foundation's plans to support more researchers like her and to communicate both the risks and potential of stem cell science to the broader community. Read more about our plans at www.stemcellfoundation.net.au.

On behalf of the Foundation I'd like to express sincere thanks for the feedback, support and encouragement we've received. We look forward to an exciting 2013.

In this newsletter:

Kind regards,
Dr Graeme Blackman OAM
Chairman of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

Making eye cells from skin cells to understand blindness

Today we launched the Foundation and announced our first research grant.

Melbourne researchers are turning skin cells into eye cells to help them understand an incurable form of blindness that affects one in seven older Australians: age-related macular degeneration.

The Foundation's first investment has brought Dr Kathryn Davidson, a young American stem cell expert, back to Melbourne and the Centre for Eye Research Australia. She hopes to help solve the mystery of what causes age-related macular degeneration, a common, incurable and poorly understood cause of blindness that costs the Australian economy $5.15 billion per year.

Dr Kathryn Davidson, the Foundation's first grant recipient.

"We don't know for certain what's happening in the eye to cause macular degeneration," says Dr Davidson. "We know that certain retinal cells die, and so do the other cells that depend on them, but we need to know how and why. Then we can start to think about early diagnosis and treatment."

"We will take skin cells from the patients, turn them into stem cells and then into new retinal cells. Then we can compare these eye cells with damaged eye cells from the same patients and see what is happening," she says.

Kathryn will join the Neuroregeneration Unit at CERA under the leadership of Dr Alice Pébay.

"I am new to the field of eye research," says Kathryn. "I wanted to work with a team focused on clinical or translational research. For me, that is important - to move the research in a direction where it may make a difference for a patient."

Receiving the Foundation's first research grant also brings a sense of coming full circle for this promising researcher. As a PhD student, Kathryn won a Premier Post Graduate Research Scholarship from the Australian Stem Cell Centre, the organisation from which the Foundation was established.

"Bringing back Kathryn is a real coup for the Foundation and our friends at CERA; we know she had other job offers," says Foundation chairman Dr Graeme Blackman.

"But as the former deputy chairman of the Stem Cell Centre, I'm just so pleased to see the progress Kathryn has made in her career since her student days. Bright young minds like hers give us great hope for the future of stem cell science in Australia."

Read more about Kathryn's work at www.stemcellfoundation.net.au/news

Stem cell 'facelift' causes bone growth: a cautionary tale

While stem cell research has the potential to save lives, a Los Angeles woman found out the hard way that many stem cell-based procedures are still unproven and sometimes unsafe.

She hoped the injection of her own stem cells would rejuvenate her aging skin and soften the fine lines around her eyes. Instead, she grew painful fine bone fragments around her right eye and in her eyelid which clicked every time she tried to open her eye.

The $US20,000 treatment took stem cells from her own liposuction fat and injected them into her face. These mesenchymal stem cells can become fat cells - but also cartilage and bone.

Scientific American speculated that the complication came from minerals in dermal filler injected at the same time. The gel has been used safely in cosmetic surgery for decades but contains calcium, which allowed the stem cells to grow into bone fragments.

These same mesenchymal cells have been spruiked as treatments for MS, Parkinsons's disease and arthritis. Nature wrote this month about clinics in Texas run by enthusiastic amateurs performing treatments they learned overseas.

Part of the problem is that stem cell therapies are poorly regulated. For example, some clinics argue that their treatments aren't biological drugs, but tissue transplants, and don't need to be held to the same testing standards.

Associate Professor Megan Munsie from Stem Cells Australia says this story shows the importance of ensuring therapies are safe and effective through solid research and clinical trials.

"With any new medical treatment there is always a risk of unintended consequences," says Megan. "This is why treatments are tested."

"Currently the only scientifically proven medical treatment using stem cells with a decent history of success is bone marrow transplants. But that doesn't stop people from offering dangerous, expensive and unproven treatments, here and overseas. I'm concerned that people might think that treatments like these are safe because they're using the patient's own cells."

The Stem Cell Foundation website has information for patients who are considering stem cell treaments: www.stemcellfoundation.net.au/patient-information

Read more about this story and the problems with unproven stem cell therapies in Scientific American and Nature.

Stem cells and cancer: experts from both in Melbourne in April

What role could stem cells play in causing, understanding and curing cancers?

The Stem Cells and Cancer 2013 Symposium is a one day meeting bringing together experts in stem cell and cancer research, hosted by our colleagues at Stem Cells Australia in Melbourne.

The two key speakers are:

  • Professor Fiona Watt, Director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King's College London, who studies the role of stem cells in forming tumours in the skin
  • Professor Jane Visvader, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, who's using methods she learned studying blood stem cells to ask how breast cancers develops.

Confirmed speakers so far include: Prof Martin Pera from Stem Cells Australia, Prof John Rasko from the Centenary Institute, Dr Pritinder Kaur and Dr Mark Shackleton from Peter Mac, Dr Samir Taoudi from WEHI, Dr Renea Taylor from Monash and Dr Nic Waddell from the University of Queensland.

The Symposium is at the Melbourne Brain Centre on 17 April 2013 and will be chaired by Professor Martin Pera.

Read more at: www.stemcellsaustralia.edu.au/News---Events.aspx

US Supreme court decision a victory for stem cell science

The Supreme Court of the United States has dismissed a long-running action to block US federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

"This is good news for stem cell science," says Foundation board member, and former Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dick Smallwood.

"The scientific community is an international community, so this isn't just a victory for researchers in the US."

"Stem cell science has great potential to alleviate human suffering. It's important that this research is adequately funded."

The use of embryos for science will always be controversial, and it's important that scientists continue to explore these issues in public.

But stem cells are a powerful tool to help us to understand debilitating diseases such as diabetes, cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and spinal cord injuries.

The case was brought to court by adult stem cell scientists James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, opposing President Obama's 2009 executive order for expanded federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells. The US Congress had previously banned the creation or destruction of embryos for research purposes in 1996, during the Presidency of George W. Bush.

Read the full story on Reuters.

Do you know someone with a stem cell travel story?

Have you travelled abroad for a stem cell treatment? Have you considered it but decided against it?

If so, Monash University researchers would like to hear from you.

The medical possibilities of stem cells have captured the public's attention. And clinics and companies overseas are promoting therapies for many conditions including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury.

This project seeks to capture the experiences of those who have had stem cell treatment overseas, and learn more about how they made their decision to travel. Researchers are also interested in interviewing Australians who have contemplated travelling for treatment but elected not to.

The team would love to hear stories from patients and carers, which will help produce information for patients and their families who are contemplating stem cell treatments.

The survey takes half an hour on the phone and the anonymity of all participants will be protected.

This project is funded by the Australian Research Council.

Contact Claire Tanner at Monash on 0433 817 048, or read more at: artsonline.monash.edu.au/stem-cell-tourism-research-project

Stem Cell Foundation website wins award

Congratulations to our website designers, Websilk, who've won a small award for their work building the Stem Cell Foundation website.

The Sitefinity Website of the Year Awards reward sites using Sitefinity's content management system, recognising creativity, design, user experience, and overall presentation of the website.

We hope our site will become a useful resource for the community. So far, we've shared advice for patients, class materials for teachers and fact sheets about stem cell science in Australia. You can also read past newsletters.

Visit our new site at: www.stemcellfoundation.net.au

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 Age: Researchers use stem cells to grow human eye lens cells in the laboratory

Stem Cells Australia: Stem cell therapy: they hype and the hope - A podcast interview with Prof Martin Pera

The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation: How can stem cell science help defeat cancer? Hear what researcher Mick Bhatia 

Australian Optometry: Technology shows the way in restoring vision

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 its 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 continue to build the profile of the Foundation and invite the community to support our work.

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.

Please feel free to contact us at enquiries@stemcellfoundation.net.au

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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 enquiries@stemcellfoundation.net.au.

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We aim to:

  • Promote the study and use of stem cells

  • Prevent or control diseases or illness

  • Enhance public education about stem cells