October 2012

Stem cells for vision, celebrating the Nobels and a progress update: Stem Cell Foundation in October

From Dr Graeme Blackman, Chairman of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

Dear Alexander, 

I'm writing to brief you on progress in establishing the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Foundation Chair
Dr Graeme Blackman

The Foundation is a legacy of the Australian Stem Cell Centre, Australia's first biotechnology Centre of Excellence, which wrapped up when our funding ended in 2011.

We felt that the outreach and research support work we did at the centre was important, so we've established the Foundation as a charity to continue that work.

During our nine years of operation, the Centre was fortunate to receive many donations and bequests. When the Centre closed, our board and stakeholders agreed to transfer the residual funds to the Foundation.

Through the new Stem Cell Foundation, we'll continue to invest these funds in public education and research efforts. Over the coming months we'll start work to build the profile of the Foundation, announce our first grants, and invite the community to support the work of the Foundation.

Our first public activity is support of a free public forum at Ausbiotech. Re-seeing the future: how technology may restore vision loss is at 2pm this Friday 2 November at the Melbourne Convention Centre. You'll find more details below.

We'll formally launch the Foundation along with our first grant early in the new year and follow that with a series of activities through 2013 to promote stem cell research and engage the public in thinking about potential of stem cells to cure disease.

We also hope to build a community of people with a stake in stem cell science and to promote collaboration between scientists locally and internationally. One of the mechanisms will be this occasional email bulletin.

I welcome your comments on the stories below and on the work of the Foundation. Please feel free to contact us at enquiries@stemcellfoundation.net.au

Kind regards,

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

In this newsletter:

Re-seeing the future: how technology may restore vision loss

Public forum Friday 2 November in Melbourne 

By the end of the decade, 800,000 Australians over 40 will suffer some vision loss, and 100,000 of those will go blind. But stem cells and biotechnology could restore sight to people with profound vision loss.

'Re-seeing the future' brings together experts from stem cell research, bionics and diseases of the eye. How can we combine advances in biotechnology with regenerative medicine to prevent blindness as we age?

This Friday afternoon, join media medico Dr Feelgood (aka Dr Sally Cockburn) for a public discussion at the Melbourne Convention Centre with researchers from the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), Stem Cells Australia and Vision Australia.

The National Stem Cell Foundation is supporting this free public event at AusBiotech 2012 as part of our commitment to educating the community about the potential of stem cell science.

When: 2.30pm-4.00pm, Friday 2 November
Where: Level 2, Melbourne Convention Centre


  • Professor Jonathan Crowston, Head Glaucoma Research Unit and Managing Director, CERA
  • Professor Robyn Guymer, Head Macular Research Unit, CERA & Bionic Vision
  • Dr Alice Pébay, Head Neuroregeneration Unit, CERA
  • Associate Professor Megan Munsie - Policy and Outreach Manager and Head of Education, Ethics, Law & Community Awareness Unit, Stem Cells Australia
  • Ms Maryanne Diamond, GM International and Stakeholder Relations, Vision Australia

More event details at the Centre for Eye Research Australia website, or download the event flyer.

To book a place for you and your guest, please RSVP to (03) 9929 8142 or email cera-rsvp@unimelb.edu.au 

Nobel prize for stem cell pioneers

October has been a time for celebration among the international stem cell science community. Pioneering stem cell researchers John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka are newly minted Nobel laureates, winning the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and bringing the media spotlight and Nobel prestige to stem cell research.

Their award was for "the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent". Working 40 years apart, their experiments established that adult cells could be turned back into stem cells, which allows us to avoid using embryos and opens the way for new kinds of stem cell treatments.

A decade ago, Professor Shinya Yamanaka took adult skin cells and, by adding four genes, reset them. The induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS, were then able to grow back into one of a number of cell types. 

Medical research wasn't Yamanaka's first choice of career. An orthopaedic surgeon by training, he wanted to specialise in sports medicine, but he moved into medical research when colleagues teased his lack of surgical skill.

By the late 90s, Yamanaka was an assistant professor at Osaka City University, but spent most of his time cleaning mouse cages. In frustration, he sent off a bold job application to another university, saying that his proposed research would clarify the characteristics of embryonic stem cells. 

The panel were impressed by Yamanaka's ambition and optimism - and that research paid off, leading to his more recent work generating stem cells from adult cells. Today he heads a Japanese institute specialising in the induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) that he helped to develop.

But he's quick to acknowledge the work of fellow Nobel laureate Sir John Gurdon, whose work back in the 50s and 60s first established that it was possible to take genetic material from an adult frog, implant that into a frog egg and hatch a normal tadpole. 
Our colleague and friend Professor Nadia Rosenthal, scientific head of EMBL Australia and the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute, has known John Gurdon since the 1980s.

Nadia shared her thoughts on his Nobel prize - and a recent portrait she drew of her old friend:

This year's prize is a particularly joyful event for scientists because it celebrates the persistence of great minds and realisation of an improbable idea. Gurdon's elegant demonstration that the genetic material in the specialised cell from an adult animal could be reprogrammed to direct the construction of an entire new organism ran counter to the genetic dogma of the 1950s, and drew attention chiefly for raising the spectre of cloning.

That it took half a century to unravel the precise genetic circuitry through the brilliant experiments of Yamanaka merely underscores how prescient Gurdon's experiments were.

Together their work has revolutionised the way we think about embryonic development, laying the foundations for contemporary stem cell research, and is paving the way for advances in regenerative medicine.

I have known John since the early 80s, when I first started my own laboratory in skeletal muscle development, a topic in which he had taken an interest.

We have had many wonderful conversations ever since, and I first thought about drawing his portrait at the opening of the new Gurdon Institute building in 2005 - the entrance hall needed one!

I was waiting to give him the original at his upcoming birthday next year. Now I have a better excuse - I'll be driving it up to Cambridge soon.

Read their Nobel citation at www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2012

More about the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia is up and running.

This new charity been established to support stem cell research and to continue the outreach work of the former Australian Stem Cell Centre.

"Australian scientists have been pioneers in stem cell research, which has great potential to change people's lives by reducing the burden of disease," says Dr Graeme Blackman OAM, founding Chairman of the Foundation.

"The Stem Cell Foundation is committed to building on Australia's successes, growing a spirit of collaboration locally and internationally, and engaging the broader public, the people we ultimately serve."

The Foundation's mission is to promote the study and use of stem cells in the prevention or control of disease in human beings and to enhance public education in this field.

Our aims are to:

  • Provide Australians with reliable information on stem cell technology and regenerative medicine, including its risks, achievements, benefits and overall technical progress.
  • Pursue cures for as yet untreatable diseases, using stem cell technology and regenerative medicine. This is reached by supporting research activities in these areas.

The Foundation was established by the Australian Stem Cell Centre in mid-2011. Since then, work has focused on establishing an internet presence for the organisation, working on processes and registration to enable donations, and consolidating links with the stem cell and biotechnology community by supporting events such as a public forum at AusBiotech 2012. The Foundation will be formally launched in early 2013.

"The Foundation has an exciting year planned for 2013, starting with the launch and continuing with expert visits, grants, fundraising, and public education initiatives," says Dr Blackman. "We look forward to sharing these initiatives with the stem cell community in the coming months."

A non-executive board of directors providing their time on a pro-bono basis govern the Foundation. The current directors are:

  • Dr Graeme Blackman OAM (Chairman)
  • Emeritus Professor Graham Macdonald AM
  • Emeritus Professor Richard Smallwood AO
  • Dr Christopher Juttner
  • Dr Peter Riddles
  • Mr Stuart Gooley
  • Mr David Collins

Company secretary: 

  • Graeme Mehegan

Spread the word

Help us grow

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. Please feel free to pass this newsletter on to anyone who might be interested.

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If you have any 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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Sent by Science in Public on behalf of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia


We aim to:

  • Promote the study and use of stem cells

  • Prevent or control diseases or illness

  • Enhance public education about stem cells