February 2014

Foundation launches major prizes for stem cell researchers; Melbourne eyesight event; young talent time at conference

National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia February newsletter

Welcome to the Foundation's bulletin on stem cell science, news and our work in supporting stem cell research in Australia.

It's a year this week since our formal launch, when we introduced Dr Kathryn Davidson, the recipient of the Foundation's first research grant.

Now we're inviting mid-career stem cell scientists to apply for two $50,000 prizes: the Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research.

The prizes are named in recognition of Emeritus Professor Donald Metcalf's significant contributions to stem cell research. Applications for the prizes are now open. Read on for more details.

Supporting research is only half our mission - we are continuing to boost public understanding of stem cell science by supporting outreach and education projects.

Last year the Foundation sponsored Professor Clare Blackburn and her stem cell documentary for an educational tour around Australia. Planning is underway for our 2014 international speaker tour. And next month, we're supporting a community information forum exploring stem cells and vision loss.

Stem cell science has been in the news internationally, with the announcement of a new method to make stem cells. Foundation Board member Dr Christopher Juttner has shared his thoughts in this bulletin on what this means for stem cell research, safety and potential treatments.

Finally, I'd like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to the biomedical scientists recognised in this year's Australia Day honours and the Australian Academy of Science Honorific Awards for Scientific Excellence, particularly Macfarlane Burnet Medal winner, Professor Jerry Adams, and Gottschalk Medal winner, Dr Kieran F. Harvey.

They remind us that biomedical and stem cell research is indeed one of Australia's strengths.

Kind regards,

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

In this bulletin:

Introducing the $50,000 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research

Announcing the Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research  

Cardiac progenitor cells in adult human hearts (photo by Corey Heffernen)

Two up-and-coming leaders in stem cell research will be personally awarded $50,000 each to boost their career to the next level.

The Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research are a new Foundation initiative to support scientific research in Australia. They are named in honour of pioneering scientist Professor Don Metcalf, who first identified colony stimulating factors (CSFs), the molecules that tell stem cells to multiply and mature to boost the immune system.

Over a 50-year career, Don's work has helped transform cancer treatment and transplant medicine, and paved the way for stem cells to treat conditions from stroke to blood diseases.

In addition to the prize money, the two recipients - one male and one female - will also have the support of Professor Metcalf as a mentor.

The winners will be chosen for their scientific excellence, proven leadership ability and the potential to have a continuing influence on stem cell research in Australia.

The Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research are open to mid-career researchers, 5-10 years past their PhD or MD, working in stem cell research in Australia. 

How to apply

Applications open Wednesday 19 February and close Friday 28 March 2014.
A full list of criteria and conditions is on the Foundation's website.
Apply online at: www.stemcellfoundation.net.au/researchers/metcalf-prizes.

Event: stem cells and vision forum

Foundation sponsors free community forum, Wednesday 19 March in Melbourne

Forum chair and stem cell scientist Alice Pébay

By the end of the decade, 800,000 Australians over 40 will suffer some vision loss, and 100,000 of those will go blind. Just a few cells can make a world of difference in the human eye.

What might stem cells offer? And what could stem cell science mean for eye diseases?

The Foundation is sponsoring a public forum at the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) to bring experts, patients and the broader community together to answer these questions.

It's an opportunity for patients to have their questions answered, and for researchers to meet the people who could benefit from their work.

When: 10.30am-12.00pm, Wednesday 19 March 
Where: Lucy Jones Hall, Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, 426 Albert Street (corner Morrison Place), East Melbourne.

The forum will be chaired by Dr Alice Pébay, Head of the Neuroregeneration Unit at CERA.

Panellists:

  • Dr Alex Hewitt - Head, Clinical Genetics Unit, CERA
  • Dr Raymond Wong - Group Leader, Cellular Reprogramming, CERA
  • Associate Professor Megan Munsie - Policy and Outreach Manager and Head of Education, Ethics, Law & Community Awareness Unit, Stem Cells Australia

For more details, visit the CERA website.

Junior researchers shine at ASSCR conference

Grants program brings youth, breadth and diversity to Brisbane meeting

Foundation board members and ASSCR president Caroline Gargett with the Foundation grant recipients

57 junior investigators joined 129 fellow researchers at the 6th annual meeting of the Australasian Society for Stem Cell Research (ASSCR), bringing energy and diverse expertise to the Brisbane event. Their attendance was made possible by a Foundation conference grant program for early career researchers.

"Having so many junior investigators attend generated a palpable excitement this year," says ASSCR president Caroline Gargett.

The Foundation awarded conference grants to 37 PhD students and 18 early career researchers to participate in the meeting, having been chosen by the ASSCR Conference Committee selection panel based on their peer reviewed submitted abstracts.

The grant program enabled a broader range of researchers to attend, with topics ranging from Claire Homan's (University of Adelaide) research on neural stem cell models and intellectual disabilities, to Christian Nefzger's (Monash Immunology and Stem Cells Labs) work on intestinal stem cells and ageing. 

"There were some young researchers who are on the periphery of stem cell science who might normally attend just their discipline-specific meetings and conferences," says Caroline. "Being able to apply for a conference grant made attending the ASSCR meeting possible, opening them up to broader areas of cell biology."

"We're seeing much more multidisciplinary research in stem cell science. It's been great - and important - to expose the next generation of leading scientists to the depth and breadth of stem cell research here and internationally."

The Foundation-supported junior investigators filled an impressive two-thirds of the speaking slots available for selection from abstracts.

"It was a terrific opportunity for cancer researchers, like me, to meet colleagues with expertise in more traditional stem cell models," says grant recipient Mitchell Lawrence of Monash University. 

"These types of interactions help cancer researchers avoid the risk of misconstruing or misappropriating concepts from stem cell biology."

Several of our Board members shared their experience and expertise with the young researchers during a special round table event.

Brooke Huuskes, a Monash University PhD candidate studying stem cells and kidney regeneration, found Board member Professor Richard Smallwood's insights from his work with the National Health and Medical Research Council particularly valuable.

"Hearing Richard talk of the reality of grant funding, what it's really like and how it's allocated, was a great opportunity, especially for people like me who want to stay in research," says Brooke.

Stem cells film sparks students' imaginations

Professor Clare Blackburn tours Australia with Stem Cell Revolutions

More than 450 high school students and their teachers have seen Nobel Prize-winning stem cell science on the big screen and met the expert behind the award-winning documentary Stem Cell Revolutions.

In Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, high school students put their questions about stem cells and careers in science to a panel of local stem cell researchers and visiting scientist Professor Clare Blackburn - a researcher at the University of Edinburgh who co-produced the film.

"The students were excited about the possibilities of the research and were able to imagine themselves in the shoes of the people on screen, doing the same great work," commented one teacher. 

"Some were worried or curious about the implications of the discoveries but were pleased to have the scientists to talk to about it".

Stem Cell Revolutions tells the story of the history of stem cell science, through animations and interviews with leading scientists, including 2012 Nobel Laureates Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John Gurdon.

"Demystifying stem cell science is important for the future of research and the therapeutic use of stem cells," says Foundation chairman Dr Graeme Blackman. "It's been delightful to start young by engaging teenagers who may be future researchers, health professionals or policy makers."

Students also played EuroStemcell's 'Start as a stem cell' floor game, teaching them about cell differentiation - how a stem cell turns into a particular type of specialised cell - in a fun, active way.

The film and speaker tour was organised by Stem Cells Australia and funded by the Foundation as part of our ongoing work to engage the broader community with stem cell science.

Stem Cell Revolutions can be viewed online.

Stem cell researcher wins prized medical research fellowship

Prize winning stem cell scientist Dr Jose Polo

Stem cell research has been given a $1.2 million boost at Monash University - Dr Jose Polo has been awarded the prestigious Sylvia & Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation Senior Medical Research Fellowship.

The five-year fellowship will support Jose's on-going fundamental research into the mechanisms and structures of gene expression within our body's cells. This research will contribute to a better understanding of how stem cells differentiate. Ultimately, a greater understanding of this process could lead to influencing cell differentiation in both the treatment of patients and future cell biology research.

Jose heads Monash University's Reprogramming and Epigenetics Laboratory and is a group leader at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute. He was previously a researcher at Harvard University.

He was also named a 2013 Victorian Tall Poppy for his involvement in Stem Cell Awareness Day, which brings together scientists, clinicians, patients and the general public.

Read Jose's researcher profile on the Monash University website.

The hype and hope of the acid bath story

Foundation Board member Christopher Juttner provides perspective

'Acid bath offers easy path to stem cells,' declared the headlines following the publication of a new way to make stem cells. Japanese and US researchers, published in Nature, have shown that adult mouse cells exposed to near-lethal conditions can convert back to an embryonic stem cell state.

Dr Christopher Juttner, a physician and chair of the Foundation's Scientific and Ethics Board sub-committee, says this discovery has the potential to provide a simpler, more productive way to make induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells that are also safer and easier for regulators to approve.

"This is a simple physical way to make stem cells by putting them under stress, such as exposure to acidic conditions or physical squeezing," says Christopher. "These 'stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency' or 'STAP' cells can then differentiate into different types of cells and tissues."

"If this technique is found to work with human cells, it potentially offers a pathway towards individualised human stem cells - therapeutic stem cells made from a patient's own adult cells."

"Previous methods for making iPS cells have involved genetic manipulation. These techniques have a low rate of output. And in therapeutic use, such cells carry the risk they might behave badly, such as causing cancer."

Several scientists have raised concerns about aspects of the Nature paper and the research. The research centre involved has opened an investigation to address these concerns. 

Read the Stem Cells Australia round-up of Australian expert commentary on the topic.

Read New Scientist's story.

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.

SMH: Australian-led international research: 'Waste' tissues from hip replacements a potential source of stem cells

Guardian: Researchers say they have reversed equivalent of type 1 #diabetes in mice using stem cell transplants

CSIRO News: Two stem cells stories feature in the Top 10 science stories of 2013, compiled by Australian Science Media Centre, CSIRO News and RiAus.

Penn Medicine: Bye bye baldness? Converting adult cells to hair follicle-generating stem cells

Reuters: could gravity-free environment of space help promote growth of stem cells? Planned Mayo Clinic research

Xinhua news: German scientists develop artificial bone marrow environment for haematopoietic stem cell growth

Science daily: Study finds patients give 'broad endorsement' to stem cell research

Life Scientist: The regulation and safety of stem cell treatments on the agenda

ABC6: Mayo Clinic gets FDA approval to trial stem cell treatment of heart failure

About the Foundation

The Foundation is a charity established as a legacy of the Australian Stem Cell Centre.

The Foundation is working to:

  • promote the study and ethical use of stem cells to reduce the burden of disease
  • enhance public education about stem cells.

We are also building 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 CEO David Zerman on (03) 9524 3166 or email him at david@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.

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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