November 2017 - Metcalf Prize special edition

Understanding why stem cells decline as we age; and building a new blood cancer treatment—Metcalf Prize winners announced

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

I’m delighted to announce that two brilliant young researchers are the winners of this year’s Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research.
Mark Dawson has helped build a new drug to treat an aggressive blood cancer from the ground up—taking it from basic science to clinical trials.
Jessica Mar is analysing stem cells to discover the changes that influence ageing, revealing how some stem cells get forgetful while others get set in their ways.
Professor Mark Dawson of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Associate Professor Jessica Mar of the University of Queensland will formally receive their prizes, presented to them by Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel at a special ceremony in Melbourne later this month.
Mark and Jessica were selected from an outstanding group of applicants, reflecting Australia’s continuing strength in stem cell research.

We’ve been able to award these two $50,000 prizes thanks to the generous support of our donors.
Read on to find out more about their research and achievements.  

Kind regards,

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

Building a blood cancer treatment from the ground up 

Melbourne clinician-scientist takes leukaemia discoveries from bench to bedside
Mark Dawson (Photo credit: Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre)Mark Dawson has helped to build a new drug to fight an aggressive form of blood cancer. He discovered the basic science of gene expression in acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), helped develop a drug to block that action, and is leading an international clinical trial to test it.
Mark first explored how genes function in leukaemia, then identified molecules that interrupt the key genetic instructions that perpetuate cancer cells. The drug subsequently developed to treat AML is now the subject of more than 50 clinical trials around the world.
“Each year, more than 1,000 Australians are diagnosed with AML, and more than 70 per cent of these people will die within five years,” says Mark.
“By studying the differences and commonalities between healthy blood stem cells and leukaemia stem cells, I hope to help develop less toxic, more targeted drug treatments that will see more of my patients live longer and healthier lives.”
Professor Mark Dawson is a clinician-scientist at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. He is the program head of the Translational Haematology Program, Group leader of the Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory and Consultant Haematologist in the Department of Haematology.
In recognition of his leadership in stem cell research, Mark Dawson has received one of two $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.
Read Mark’s full profile online

How we and our stem cells get old 

Brisbane researcher reveals how some stem cells get forgetful while others get set in their ways

Jessica Mar (Photo credit: AIBN at UQ)Jessica Mar is analysing stem cells to discover the changes that influence ageing.

We all started life as a stem cell. Throughout our lives, stem cells repair and replace our tissues, but as we age they stop working as well. Understanding how this decline occurs is fundamental to understanding—and influencing—how we age.

Jessica is studying ageing stem cell models with collaborators around Australia to answer these questions. She is also collaborating on longevity research internationally, and will work with two study populations, ‘super-centenarians’ in Japan who live to 110 years or more, and a group of Ashkenazi Jews who are aged 95 years and older.

“There are two schools of thought,” she says. “Some researchers believe that errors creep into the translation of our genes into proteins causing genetic noise and disease. Others are adamant that the noise decreases and that the stem cells become less able to adapt to circumstance. My research has shown that it’s actually a bit of both.”

In 2011, Jessica demonstrated for the first time that both can be true. Working with Australian of the Year Alan Mackay-Sim and his collection of nasal stem cells from patients, she showed increased genetic noise is linked with Parkinson’s disease. Then she showed the opposite in schizophrenia.

Jessica will use her Metcalf Prize to expand her research and introduce the next generation of stem cell researchers to the power of ‘centenarian studies’. It’s all based on big data, and powerful computer analysis of the genomes of millions of individual cells from hundreds of people.

Associate Professor Jessica Mar is a Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland.

In recognition of her leadership in stem cell research, Associate Professor Jessica Mar has received one of two $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Read Jessica’s full profile online

The Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research are named for the late Professor Donald Metcalf AC. 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.


We aim to:

  • Promote the study and use of stem cells

  • Prevent or control diseases or illness

  • Enhance public education about stem cells