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Better bone marrow transplants and building a virtual human cell

November 15, 2021

Research to improve bone marrow transplantation and to use computer science to understand how stem cells work has won two Australian researchers $55,000 each in the annual Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research, awarded by the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Associate Professor Siok Tey is researching treatments that will improve the survival and quality of life for her patients with leukaemia or other blood cancers.

“Bone marrow transplantation is an important form of treatment for blood cancers but it cures only two-thirds of patients,” says Siok, a clinician researcher at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.

“I would have died in two weeks if I hadn’t been diagnosed and treated when I was,” says sculptor David White, a 52-year-old father of two and one of Siok’s patients. “But the side effects were tough. So, it’s exciting to see Siok working on better ways to keep saving lives.”

Siok will use her $55,000 Metcalf Prize to improve the outcomes of bone marrow transplantation, which rebuilds the blood and immune systems to protect patients from leukaemia relapse. Not all patients, however, stay in long-term remission and the treatment often comes with serious side effects. 

Siok plans to identify which transplanted cells provide protection from leukaemia relapse and which ones contribute to complications, and then to use this knowledge to develop better treatments.

Read more about Siok and her research.

Dr Pengyi Yang plans to transform stem cell research.

“Today’s stem cell treatments have been the product of trial and error. My virtual stem cell will allow us to understand what’s happening inside a single stem cell that makes it decide what type of cell it will become, be it hair, skin, muscle, nerve, blood or other.”

He is mapping the many, complex influences that control stem cells and how they specialise into different cell types.

Pengyi is based at the Children's Medical Research Institute and at The University of Sydney. He aims to remove much of the guess work from stem cell science and eventually stem cell medicine.

Read more about Pengyi and his research.

“Pengyi Yang’s research unravelling the fundamentals of how different cell types form and Siok Tey’s work towards improving outcomes for her patients shows the breadth and the importance of stem cell research – from basic science to treatments in the clinic,” says Dr Graeme Blackman AO, the chairman of the Foundation.

The awards are named for the late Professor Donald Metcalf AC who, over a 50-year career, helped transform cancer treatment and transplantation medicine, paving the way for potential stem cell therapy in the treatment of many other conditions.

The 2021 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research will be formally presented at a special event later in the year.

Images of Siok and Pengyi and their research are available here.

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