This month we’re introducing some media savvy scientists who are balancing the real potential and the real risks of stem cell treatments for the public; we’re also looking for our next Metcalf Prize winners.
Welcome to the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia’s bulletin on stem cell medicine and research in Australia.
As tried and tested—and life-saving—bone marrow and cord blood transplants become more common, it’s the more unusual treatments or heart-breaking patient stories that get media attention. Some of these treatments aren’t proven to be effective and some are downright risky, but are presented as ‘curing’ MS or preventing knee replacements.
In this bulletin we meet a range of scientists who are championing evidence-based medicine and stem cell research in the media, highlighting the importance of proven results and discussing why some of the available treatments are not the best option. Read on for more details.
Do you know any up-and-coming stem cell researchers? There is just under one week remaining for them to apply for the 2016 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research. The prizes, worth $50,000 each, are awarded to one male and one female mid-career researcher.
Applications close on 21 March 2016. Read on for more details.
Dr Graeme L Blackman OAM
Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia
‘Stem cell therapy’ in media stories could refer to treatments such as bone marrow transplants that have been saving lives for years, experimental treatments that have potential, or dodgy treatments from snake oil merchants that are downright dangerous.
Who better to explain and champion their science than the scientists themselves? Respected and engaging scientists are stepping up for evidence-based science and medicine, and injecting some much needed facts into media stories.
There is a danger that if scientists don’t step up and fill the void, the snake oil merchants will, encouraging desperate people to sign up locally or travel overseas for expensive, experimental treatments.
The following people have seen the value in talking to the media about stem cell therapies, sorting the hype from the hope:
Austin Health director of paediatrics and respected epilepsy researcher Ingrid Scheffer is not a stem cell scientist as such, but she spoke up when she saw stem cells being used to treat epilepsy in a young child. Ingrid told the Herald Sun newspaper that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to pursue stem cell treatment.
“I would be concerned it could do harm,” she told the newspaper.
Mel Thomson appreciates the importance of legitimate therapies and treatments for diseases. She’s a microbiologist at Deakin University, but she also suffers from tumefactive MS, a very rare form of the disease. Mel understands how people can be seduced by stem cell treatments as a potential cure for their ailment. Commenting on treatments that aren’t backed by science, such as homeopathy, she told the Geelong Advertiser “you shouldn’t need a PhD in medical research to be able to sort through it all but sadly I think you actually do.” Mel has also shared her story and her ‘quack busting’ efforts with ABC Lateline and through Twitter.
John Rasko from Centenary Institute and the University of Sydney, and Martin Pera, Stem Cells Australia program leader, went on SBS’s Insight to defend the science behind stem cell treatments, highlighting that many types of stem cell therapy are still experimental and it’s not known, in many cases, whether they’re safe or effective.
They also reiterated the problems with having celebrity endorsements and individual testimonials of success with stem cell treatments, rather than reporting on the results of well design studies that openly document the full range of patient outcomes, for better or worse. Megan Munsie from Stem Cells Australia and the University of Melbourne was also in the audience and provided important background information to the show’s producers. You can watch this episode of Insight here.
Martin has also spoken to the media about the lack of monitoring and reporting on adverse events around ‘autologous’ stem cell treatments (using a patient’s own stem cells) that are still experimental. In this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Martin explains that Australia’s relaxed rules around this type of treatment opens up opportunities for ‘dodgy’ clinics that are in it for the money. “We want to see legitimate stem cell therapies tested in humans and succeed, there is no doubt about that, but there are proper channels to do that,” he says.
The Australian Academy of Science has also called for tighter regulations around stem cell therapies, which currently allow doctors to offer experimental stem cell treatments, provided they are using the patients’ own stem cells, usually obtained by liposuction. Last year, they put in a submission to the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s public consultation on stem cell treatments, as did the Foundation. You can download the Academy's submission here (pdf). Fellow Richard Harvey also spoke to the Australian Financial Review about Australia’s regulatory gaps.
The final word goes to Gordon Wallace from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at the University of Wollongong, who is developing 3D printers that can print with stem cells. Gordon often shares his science with the public through media interviews.
“There are undoubtedly safety and even ethical issues around these emerging technologies that we need to confront. What’s encouraging is that this generation of scientists that’s emerging is very familiar with those questions and keen to engage with all levels of the community to come up with the answers to those questions.
There is now just under one week left to apply for the 2016 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research. If you know an up-and-coming stem cell researcher, encourage them to apply.
The $50,000 prizes are open to mid-career researchers who are five to 10 years past their PhD or MD (research-based) and working in stem cell research in Australia. They could be working in medicine or agriculture, government or a university.
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.
Past Metcalf Prize winners include bioinformatician Christine Wells from Brisbane, Perth geneticist Ryan Lister, Tasmanian neural stem cell researcher Kaylene Young and Melbourne reprogramming legend Jose Polo.
The Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research recognise and honour the exceptional contribution made to stem cell research by the late Professor Donald Metcalf. Over his 50-year career, Don helped transform cancer treatment and transplantation medicine, and paved the way for potential stem cell therapy in the treatment of many other conditions.
The Metcalf Prizes support the Foundation’s mission to promote the study and use of stem cells in the prevention or control of disease in human beings and to enhance stem cell public education.
Applications close Monday 21 March 2016. We encourage last year’s unsuccessful applicants to apply again this year if they are still eligible.
To apply online, and for a full list of criteria and conditions, head to the Foundation’s website: www.stemcellfoundation.net.au/researchers/metcalf-prizes
Between newsletters, we share stem cell news on social media:
Here are a few of the stories we’ve shared recently.
ScienceAlert: Researchers think they’ve just found a new kind of stem cell
Science: Zika virus kills developing brain cells
The Japan Times: Stem cells used to replace part of the human brain
The Irish Times: Scientists discover stem cell that grows into replacement tissue
The San Diego Union-Tribune: Liver tissue bioprinted from stem cells; PNAS paper
Cosmos: Heart stem cell patches not as strong as 'real' cells; Journal of Cell Biology paper
The Indian Express: In child’s death, questions of a stem cell transplant law
TIME: Shrinking stem cells are the real reason for hair loss; Science paper
Columbia Spectator: Columbia research shows electrical stimulation alone can aid growing heart cells
Knoepfler lab blog: FDA warning letter to Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center clinics Across US
The Scotsman: Cure for Type 1 diabetes closer after stem cell transplant; Nature paper
The Economist: Curing multiple sclerosis – Stem cells are starting to prove their value as medical treatments
SBS: Australian doctors urge caution on stem cell therapy for MS
The Telegraph: ReNeuron bags £2.1m grant from Innovate UK for stem cell treatment
International Business Times: Cure for HIV: Spanish doctors use blood transplants from umbilical cords with genetic resistance to virus to treat Barcelona man
The Scientist: Programming pancreatic cells
The Conversation: Why most cancer isn’t due to ‘bad luck’
San Jose Mercury News: Stanford bringing gene editing to patients with deadly diseases
ABC: Revolutionary stem cell therapy trial for Parkinson's disease to be held in Australia
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:
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 email@example.com
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