June 2014

The first Metcalf prizes; who’s who of Australian stem cell science; peer-review in action

National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia June newsletter

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

Australia is home to some remarkable stem cell researchers. Two of them were recognised today by our inaugural Metcalf Prizes.
Kaylene Young believes she can persuade certain lazy stem cells to repair brain injury. Jose Polo is unveiling the details of how stem cells can be produced from adult cells through a process of identity theft and reprogramming.
We’ve been able to award these prizes thanks to the generous support of our donors. We’re calling for more donations now to ensure we can offer future prizes and conduct other initiatives supporting stem cell research and community education.
One such initiative is the Foundation’s new Snapshot of Australian Stem Cell Science: May 2014, illustrating the depth and diversity of local stem cell research. Read on to find out more about the snapshot.

This research is building the evidence base for the use of stem cells to study disease and alleviate suffering. Stem cell science holds a lot of promise, but there is still a long way to go towards establishing safe, proven treatments. 

It is vitally important we support both the science and community understanding of it. This is the Foundation’s mission. Please support us in our work.

Kind regards,

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

In this bulletin:

New national stem cell prizes awarded to Tasmanian and Melbourne researchers

Stem cells changing identity and mending the mind: meet the Metcalf Prize-winning researchers

Metcalf Prize-winning researchers Jose Polo and Kaylene Young. Credit: Mark Coulson/NSCFA
Dr Kaylene Young of the Menzies Research Institute Tasmania at UTAS and Dr Jose Polo of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University have both received inaugural $50,000 Metcalfe Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia in recognition of their leadership in stem cell research. 

Kaylene Young believes she can persuade lazy stem cells in our brain to repair brain injuries and even treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

Kaylene and her colleagues have found neural stem cells and related progenitor cells (OPCs) – which feed, protect and assist nerve cells – in the outer part of the brain most prone to damage, known as the cortex.

By understanding the behaviour and function of these cells, they one day hope to use them for treating nervous and brain disorders or damage. 

“Our ultimate goal is to harness the regenerative capacity of these cells for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, mental health disorders and traumatic brain injury,” says Kaylene.

Kaylene is a National Health and Medical Research Council RD Wright Biomedical Research Fellow and Research Group Leader at the University of Tasmania.

According to Kaylene, the progenitor cells are the only cells, apart from other neurons, with which nerve cells communicate electrically. This means there may be an electrical means of controlling them or modifying their behaviour to induce regeneration. 

Jose Polo is unveiling the details of how stem cells can be produced from adult cells through a process of identity theft and reprogramming.  

His work in unravelling the development of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) – stem cells generated from adult cells in the skin, liver, blood or other parts of the body – is an important step on the path to treating degenerative diseases and understanding some cancers.

Jose is the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Senior Medical Research Fellow at the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at Monash University and the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute.

“We’ve created the Metcalf Prizes to encourage early career stem cell research pioneers,” says Dr Graeme Blackman OAM, the Chairman of the Foundation. 

“We were stunned by the quality of the applications. Our inaugural winners Kaylene Young and Jose Polo stood out from a remarkable field of young researcher leaders. We can expect great things from Australian stem cell research in next few years.” 

The awards are named for Professor Donald Metcalf AC who transformed cancer treatment with his discoveries of critical molecules that tell stem cells to multiply and mature to boost the immune system.

Read more about the Metcalf Prize winners.

Raised funds at work

Support the Foundation’s end of financial year appeal

Supporting the research of the Metcalf Prize winners Dr Jose Polo and Dr Kaylene Young would not be possible without the financial assistance of our donors. We hope to raise funds to ensure that the Metcalf Prizes continue in perpetuity.

We are deeply grateful for the kindness and generosity of those who have made donations. With this support, the Foundation has contributed to the development of Australia’s stem cell sector over the past year by:

  • publishing The Australian Stem Cell Handbook, which helps patients and their loved ones make informed decisions about stem cell treatments offered in Australia and overseas
  • providing funding for the Centre for Eye Research Australia at the University of Melbourne for a research project on age-related macular degeneration, a common, incurable and poorly understood cause of blindness
  • providing conference support for:
    • 57 PhD students and early career researchers to attend and present at the Australian Society of Stem Cell Researchers Conference in Brisbane
    • 17 PhD students and early career researchers to attend and present at the Cell Reprogramming Australia conference in Melbourne
    • five PhD students and early career researchers to attend the International Society of Stem Cell Researchers Conference in Vancouver
  • funding national public forums on diabetes and stem cells and macular degeneration and stem cells, bringing scientists, physicians and the broader community together to exchange information
  • undertaking national educational programs on stem cells for secondary students through online resources, panel discussions with scientists and special film screenings.
The Foundation is the only ATO-registered Health Promotion Charity taking a one-stop national research and public information approach to encourage the best and the brightest researchers in Australia’s stem cell sector. We focus on delivering better health outcomes for all in our community through collaborative funding.

With the end of financial year around the corner, we invite people to make a donation to support our ongoing work. Donations can be made securely online at our website.

What’s happening in Australian stem cell research?

Foundation’s new Snapshot of Australian Stem Cell Research now online

Scenes from Australian stem cell science. Images by Mark Coulson, David Haylock, Megan Munsie and Ernst Wolvetang
We have published a snapshot of stem cell projects in Australia. The
Snapshot of Stem Cell Research in Australia: May 2014 documents 150 projects and initiatives around Australia on stem cell research as of May 2014.

The snapshot aims to capture in one document the range of local current research, with the hope that this will facilitate collaboration and networking among researchers.

Australia’s breadth of stem cell research reflects the country’s early pioneering work in the field: from the development of polymer scaffolding for stem cell-derived tissues in Queensland to adult central nervous system cell regeneration research in Tasmania; from lung tissue repair research in the West to potentially restoring eye sight using stem cells in the East. 

Information contained in the snapshot has come from research institute websites and/or has been edited or provided directly by individual researchers.

The snapshot can be downloaded via the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia website.

From stem cell fraud to acupuncture, peer review can save us from ourselves

Feature by Mick Vagg, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine & Pain Specialist at Barwon Health; originally published at
The Conversation, 2 April 2014

The publication of a paper in Nature describing “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” (STAP) caused an international sensation. It was potentially the Holy Grail of stem cell research – how to create stem cells with a benchtop technique that seemed simple, reliable and cheap compared to other ways that were known to researchers.

The researcher involved was a scientific wunderkind named Haruko Obokata. Obokata had published this revolutionary research in the most prestigious peer-reviewed journal of all, only three years after completing her PhD in cell biology. It seemed like a fairytale rise.

It didn’t take long for cracks to appear in the tale. Excited scientists all over the world tried and failed to replicate the results. 

If the breakthrough had truly been all it promised, and more, there would be rapid replication by other labs within weeks, and frenzied efforts to improve and enlarge upon the new knowledge.

Sadly, none of that happened.

Weeks ticked by and nobody could get the same results. Irregularities in the paper were noted and explanations were demanded. Some of Obokata’s colleagues in the field suggested the paper should be retracted until it could be replicated. 

Retraction of a paper is an unusual event in serious science and, when done, tends to call into question the academic capability of the authors of the paper and the peer review processes of the journal involved. It is sometimes done for ethical reasons, but retraction due to fraud or misconduct is rare and devastating to the careers of those involved. Some of the retraction debate is well summarised here.

Then today comes the news that Obokata has been found by her research institute to have manipulated the results of her experiments to a degree that amounts to faking them. This is sad and disappointing news, but in many ways does not come as a surprise. 

As any science-watcher knows, extraordinary claims must be backed by extraordinary evidence, and error or misconduct by one group of researchers is always more likely than all other researchers in the same field being mistaken or ignorant.

Scientific scandals are not new and tend to involve cutting-edge areas. The cold fusion debacle springs to mind. In that case, Pons and Fleischmann described a very simple method, which had supposedly been missed by other researchers for creating almost unlimited nuclear energy at room temperature. 

Unlike Obokata, they didn’t bother trying to publish in a prestigious journal but went straight to a press conference. Replication was also the rock upon which cold fusion was dashed, as doubts were raised in both practical and theoretical spheres in the weeks that followed.

The process of peer review is a massive part of the reason that the scientific method is so dependably credible. Having to convince a determinedly sceptical group of colleagues who will hold you to pre-agreed high standards in your argument produces convincing work. It seems extraordinary that a possibly concocted paper could have made it all the way through to publication in Nature but even the best reviewers can lose objectivity when confronted by such a remarkable claim. We all desperately want good things to be true.

Purveyors of poor-quality science have an easier time of it if they can avoid peer review. They might do this by going straight to the media with an engaging story that they hope will be reported uncritically by busy journalists who won’t fact-check with experts. 

They might present the data as a poster at a conference and not bother submitting to a journal that has robust peer review. They may even publish a very conservative, minimally controversial paper and then make more sweeping claims in the press release announcing their publication. I’ve seen all these used to promote research that goes on to be shredded by peer review and justly ignored by science-based healthcare providers.

The recent story in the Australian media about acupuncture used for acute pain relief in emergency departments is a good example of research that seems to have avoided peer review and made a bid to capture the popular consciousness. The headline reports that the study has demonstrated a positive result in favour of acupuncture. Does it really? We have no idea, because in the third paragraph of the story, we learn that the study hasn’t even been written up for publication yet, let alone peer reviewed. 

In my opinion, that should have been the point when a responsible journalist would have turned off the recorder, put away her pen and politely requested that the interviewee come back when they actually have a story. If it hasn’t been peer-reviewed, it’s just hearsay and third-hand gossip as far as serious clinicians and academics are concerned.

The acupuncture study in the article is known about in rough terms from the previous publication of the proposed protocol in 2011. The study design has the potential for numerous serious flaws, any one of which could reduce its real-world usefulness to zero. 

Dr Rachael Dunlop has neatly summarised the possible methodological flaws in a blog post here. It’s academically irresponsible to discuss research publicly that has not been through peer review. That’s not just my heartfelt opinion; it’s in the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research as well.

Aggressive, robust peer review will always be applied to things that look too good to be true. Nobel Prizes in Medicine are hard-earned because to win one you have to produce research that is not only game-changing, but also which stands up to replication and peer review. 

Quality research breeds new knowledge, explains previously misunderstood problems and creates whole new industries. Pseudoscience is sterile and leads only to repetition and elaboration of delusions. The stakes are high, which is why the knowledge at the root of new discoveries has to be demonstrably sound.

If you have described reality accurately, you will be rewarded generously, both financially and socially. If you have not, your research will be met with a response that is red in tooth and claw. The public image of stem cell research may take a hit over the STAP fakery, but it shouldn’t. 

The whole saga shows the scientific community doing what it does every day of the year. There are hundreds of other reputable researchers who will simply pick up where they left off, incrementally advancing the collective knowledge of the field. Their work will go on, just as the careers of those who have misled them will be over. Long may it remain so.

The Conversation

Michael Vagg does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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.

Australian Academy of Science: (Video) Sir Gustav Nossal presents ‘Biomedical research: a success story’ at Science at the Shine Dome 2014. Address begins at 36:57 and includes local stem cell success.

Harvard Stem Cell Institute: Herpes-loaded stem cells used to kill brain tumours

Wall Street Journal (Japan): STAP investigator resigns over allegations of similar problems in his own research

Business Standard: Association of Spine Surgeons of India expresses concern over risks of unproven stem cell treatments for spinal injuries

Cell Stem Cell: Human stem cells created by CHA Health Systems researchers via cloning technique – research paper abstract

Washington Post: In stem-cell research, health benefits outweigh the risks of copying humans

Impact Nottingham: Stem cells mending a broken heart

Nature News: US National Institutes of Health stem cell program closes

Eureka Alert: Solution to platelet ‘puzzle’ uncovers blood disorder link – WEHI research

UCL News: Light-activated neurons from stem cells restore function to paralysed muscles 

GEN: Evolution of stem cell quality standards

University of Auckland: Scientists discover new stem cell in human skin

UMBT Health: Scientists grow new lungs using ‘skeletons’ of old ones

About the Foundation

The NSCFA 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 CEO David Zerman on (03) 9524 3166 or email him at david@stemcellfoundation.net.au

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We aim to:

  • Promote the study and use of stem cells

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  • Enhance public education about stem cells