November 2015

How celebrities, media and marketing misplace stem cell hope

What do celebrities, the media and the red carpet have to do with stem cell science and public health? 

Plenty, with both evidence-based science and celebrity treatments covered in Australian and international media in recent weeks.

Welcome to the National Stem Cell Foundation’s bulletin on stem cell medicine and research in Australia.

Recent weeks have seen widespread media coverage of the Australian research team, lead by Professor Melissa Little bioengineering mini-kidneys from stem cells. Their results have been published in a landmark Nature paper.

But the media is also littered with uncritical ‘miracle cure’ stories, and celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Rafael Nadal are focusing even more over-hyped attention on the potential of stem cells, raising hopes that the science does not yet support.

This bulletin includes a feature on stem cells in the media and marketing, and the responsibility—shared by stem cell scientists, clinicians, patient advocates, health writers and the media—for talking about the potential of regenerative medicine in ways that don’t unreasonably raise the expectations of vulnerable people. Read on for more.

While celebrities are experimenting with stem cells, stem cell scientists are hitting the red carpet. The recent Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, the ‘Oscars of Australian Science,’ saw an Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute and Garvan team win the Prize for Scientific Research. Read on for details.

2015 Metcalf Prize winner Christine Wells was also a guest at the Eureka Prizes, among the FANTOM5 Project team that was a finalist for the Prize for International Scientific Collaboration.

And in more prize news, 2014 Metcalf winner Kaylene Young has been recognised as a Tasmanian AIPS Young Tall Poppy. Read on for more.

Seeing the continued success of our Metcalf Prize alumni, we look forward to opening the 2016 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research later in the year.

Kind regards,

Dr Graeme L Blackman OAM

Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia



In this bulletin:

  • Feature: How celebrities, personal stories and misplaced hope sell questionable treatments
  • MS and Alzheimer’s researcher wins Tall Poppy
  • Making blood on demand with stem cells?
  • Stem cell news from around the world

Feature: How celebrities, personal stories and misplaced hope sell questionable treatments

Timothy Caulfield's sample of celebrity stem cell media storiesStudies show the power of media hype over science in influencing patients 

What do AFL footballer Adam Goodes, tennis champion Rafael Nadal, Canadian ice hockey legend Gordie Howe and reality TV personality Kim Kardashian have in common?

They’re all celebrities featured in sensationalist media stories about unproven stem cell therapies, from Rafael Nadal’s stem cell injections into his back to Kim Kardashian’s $500 pre-wedding ‘vegan stem cell serum’ facial.

Canadian health law and policy expert Professor Timothy Caulfield has found that celebrity culture has a profound influence on the debate around stem cell treatments. Celebrity stem cell treatment stories that don’t question the science raise public expectations that these treatments are safe, effective and should be more widely available.

In Australia, Monash University sociologist Professor Alan Petersen has interviewed dozens of patients, patient advocates, clinicians and carers about sources of information for people considering experimental stem cell therapies or travel for treatment—with surprising results.

Both Timothy’s and Alan’s research show the power and influence of celebrity and personal stories, and their wildfire spread through media, social media and the internet.

Read full story online


MS and Alzheimer’s researcher wins Tall Poppy

Kaylene Young in the lab (Photo courtesy of Menzies Institute for Medical Research)Metcalf Prize recipient Kaylene Young adds to her science trophy shelf

Hobart researcher Dr Kaylene Young’s efforts to persuade ‘lazy’ stem cells in our brain to repair brain injuries and treat diseases have won her an AIPS 2015 Young Tall Poppy Science Award.

Kaylene’s research explores the potential for stem cells in the brain to repair brain injuries and even treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

She and her colleagues at Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania have found neural stem cells and related progenitor cells, which feed, protect and assist nerve cells, in the outer part of the brain. This area, known as the cortex, is the most prone to damage. By understanding the behaviour and function of these cells, they one day hope to use them for treating nervous and brain disorders or damage.

Every year the Young Tall Poppy Awards are announced in each Australian state, recognising exceptional young researchers and putting them to work to engage students and teachers with study and careers in science.

The Tall Poppy Campaign was created in 1998 by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS) to recognise scientific excellence and to encourage younger Australians to follow in the footsteps of our outstanding achievers.

Read about Kaylene’s win and her MS research on the MS Research Australia website

Listen to ABC Far North’s interview with Kaylene

Read about Kaylene’s 2014 Metcalf Prize win


Making blood on demand with stem cells?

ARMI and Garvan Institute researchers win the 2015 Eureka Prize for Scientific ResearchARMI and Garvan Institute researchers win the 2015 Eureka Prize for Scientific Research

Everyday medical procedures can require litres of donated blood. Could much of that blood be artificially created in the lab, reducing the pressure on blood banks?

A team of Melbourne and Sydney researchers has unlocked a mechanism that triggers stem cell production in blood, making the production of blood cells in the laboratory an achievable end goal.

The team comprises Professor Peter Currie and Phong Nguyen (Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute, Monash University) and Dr Georgina Hollway (Garvan Institute of Medical Research).

For identifying a mechanism that triggers stem cell production in zebrafish blood, they have been awarded the University of New South Wales Eureka Prize for Scientific Research.

“These Australian researchers have transformed our understanding of stem cell development,” Kim McKay AO, Executive Director and CEO of the Australian Museum said. “Their work opens up a host of new research routes, with exciting potential to generate blood cells on demand for medical treatment,” she said.

The team identified a new family of cells – endotomal cells – that wrap themselves around nascent stem cells, signalling to them via released proteins that it’s time to ‘switch on’.

The breakthrough is only the first step in what will be a lengthy scientific process, but it opens up a whole new line of inquiry within developmental biology: to find what other molecular signals are produced by these new cells to stimulate stem cell production.

Established in 1827, the Australian Museum is the nation’s first museum and one of its foremost scientific research, educational and cultural institutions. The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence in Research and Innovation, Leadership, Science Communication and Journalism, and School Science.

Watch their finalist’ video


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.

SBS News: Doctors hope to use stem cells and 3D printing to regrow bone

ABC News: Stem cell experts urge ethical debate over embryo creation

BBC News: First 'in womb' stem cell trial to begin

LA Times: Sky-high price of new stem cell therapies is a growing concern

Sydney Morning Herald: Lab-grown human kidney a breakthrough for medical researchers

Youth Independent: Scientists to build a ‘frozen zoo’ to save endangered species

Sunday Telegraph: Stem cell trial gave mum new life

BioNews: STAP stem-cell findings were result of contamination; Nature article

BioNews: FDA controls urged for unregulated stem cell treatments

Science Alert: Lab-grown kidneys shown to be fully functional in animal recipients

Australian Financial Review: Mesoblast wins Japanese approval for stem cell product

The Conversation: From science fiction to reality: the dawn of the biofabricator

Herald Sun: Melbourne researchers uncover how leukaemia becomes resistant to treatment

EuroStemCell: Autism research using mini-organs grown from patient derived stem cells

Cosmos: Alan Trounson: On the right side of history

Ecns.cn (China): Health authority announces step to rein in ‘wild’ stem cell treatment


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 jmason@stemcellfoundation.net.au


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