2020 highlights … and lowlights …
There was no shortage of fascinating stem cell news in 2020, from the birth of living ‘xenobots’, to the legal consequences for controversial scientists, and the role cord blood banks played during the pandemic. Read on for our selection of the good, the bad and ugly stem cell stories of the year.
Better scar tissue after heart attack
2016 Metcalf Prize winner James Chong kicked off 2020 with a major journal publication on New Year’s Day. His study, published in Science Translational Medicine, showed a new protein therapy could encourage better quality, more flexible scar formation following a heart attack.
Heart disease remains the largest killer in Australia and around the world. The Foundation is supporting James and his colleagues at The Westmead Institute for Medical Research to bring a different new stem cell-derived treatment for heart attacks to the clinic. You can support his work by making a donation, which we will match dollar-for-dollar. Find out more about our Heart Project.
Scientists make the first ‘living robots’ from frog stem cells
US researchers created programmable living machines – dubbed xenobots – by assembling cells from African clawed frogs into robots that can move around on short stumpy legs. These living robots could deliver small amounts of material, such as medicines or useful reagents.
Scientists unite to warn of snake oil merchants riding the pandemic’s coat tails
For years, rogue clinics have been touting expensive and unproven stem cell therapies as ‘natural’ and ‘miracle’ cures for everything from multiple sclerosis to autism to Alzheimer’s disease.
COVID-19 was no different, bringing new health fears and a fresh market for charlatans peddling false hope.
Leading stem cell science institutes and societies including the Centre for Stem Cell Systems at the University of Melbourne and the International Society for Stem Cell Research, joined forces to sound the warning to vulnerable patients and consumers. Read more.
April – October
Science during a pandemic
“Australia’s research workforce will be severely impacted by the pandemic and the effects are likely to be felt for an extended period.”
This was one of the key findings of an investigation conducted by the Rapid Research Information Forum, an initiative convened by the Chief Scientist, designed to quickly bring together relevant expertise to inform Australia’s response to COVID-19 on multiple fronts.
The investigation, titled ‘Impact of the pandemic on Australia’s research workforce’, also highlighted university job losses, travel restrictions impacting international student enrolments, and reduced innovation capacity in research and industry sectors, with consequences for Australia’s long-term economic growth. Read the full report.
This has reinforced the Foundation’s commitment to supporting scientists.
Melbourne researchers in particular had to work under lockdown conditions for an extended period. To get an idea of the toll the crisis has taken, we found out about life during the crisis for Florey Institute researcher Dr Jennifer Hollands, who studies the development and treatment of brain diseases. You can read the story on our website.
Swedes indict surgeon for stem-cell windpipe transplants
The once-feted regenerative medicine pioneer and surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was indicted for aggravated assault in relation to three fatal plastic trachea transplants performed at the Karolinska Institute hospital in Sweden.
Macchiarini’s method involved ‘regenerated tracheas’ made by growing new tissue seeded by a patient’s stem cells onto a scaffold – either plastic or sourced from a deceased donor.
Initially hailed as a breakthrough, the work made Macchiarini some famous friends. He was even featured in a two-hour documentary. But most of the patients who received artificial tracheas died. Investigators found evidence of scientific and medical misconduct.
The indictment is the latest chapter in the saga of a charismatic celebrity scientist, and a cautionary tale reminding us that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Ryan Lister wins WA Scientist of the Year
The Foundation is committed to supporting researchers developing treatments underpinned by the rigorous science we need for evidence-based medicine.
One such is Professor Ryan Lister (pictured with WA Science Minister Dave Kelly) who, in late September, was named joint Western Australian 2020 Scientist of the Year for his work in genome regulation and stem cell biology.
In 2015, we backed Ryan with a $50,000 Metcalf Prize to support his research into gene molecular on/off switches, how they change through a cell’s life, and how this knowledge can be used to make reprogrammed stem cells ‘forget’ their past lives.
Ryan is an epigenetics researcher at the University of Western Australia and Harry Perkins Institute.
Cord blood even more important in 2020
Frozen cord blood became a vital back-up source of blood-forming stem cells during COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Stem cells, of course, have been saving lives for decades, through bone marrow and cord blood transplants.
But during the coronavirus pandemic it was extremely difficult for adult bone marrow donors and couriers to travel for transplantation.
Cord blood is used in the treatment of leukaemia and other blood cancers, certain types of anaemia, and other conditions. Cord blood collection has recommenced in Melbourne, having paused due to the complications and risks of COVID-19.
We marked World Cord Blood Day on 17 November by celebrating the role public cord blood banks play—both in normal times and during global emergencies. Read our guide to cord blood donation.