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December 2019

Hackathon unearths new stem cell talent and Metcalf Prize winners awarded

The next generation of data scientists is learning about stem cells, and young biomedical researchers are learning how to mine big data, thanks to the Stem Cell Hackathon run by 2017 Metcalf Prize winner Jessica Mar. Read on for details.

Our newest Metcalf Prize winners Dr Felicity Davis and Associate Professor James Hudson were presented with their awards by Professor Hugh Taylor AC at a special ceremony in Melbourne. More below.

Enjoy our regular round-up of links to stories we’ve shared via social media.

We will be sharing more of the year’s top stories of stem cell science on Twitter over the holiday period, using the hashtag #StemCellsIn2019.

And we look forward to sharing more news and stories of science, scientists and discoveries in 2020.

Kind regards,

Dr Graeme L Blackman AO

Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia


In this bulletin:

  • Biology meets big data at the Stem Cell Hackathon
  • Young scientists' work on breasts and miniature hearts awarded
  • Stem cell news from around the world


Biology meets big data at the Stem Cell Hackathon

Metcalf Prize winner puts students and young researchers through their paces at bioinformatics bootcamp

About 70 students, dozens of datasets, seven coaches, four judges and one award-winning scientist came together this year for a stem cell hackathon, with teams battling to unearth the best problem-solving idea buried in big data.

The event was held over three days in August at the University of Queensland.

The initiative was the brainchild of Associate Professor Jessica Mar, a computational biologist at Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN). It’s something she’s been planning since winning a Metcalf Prize two years ago.

Jessica has seen the rapid increase in both the capability of supercomputing and the sheer volume of genetic and biological data. She wants to equip the next generation of biologists with data and coding skills, and to imbue data scientists with an understanding of biomedical science.

Participants in the hackathon heard from entrepreneurs, data scientists and stem cell experts, including Jessica’s fellow Metcalf Prize winner Professor Christine Wells, director of the Stemformatics initiative, an online encyclopaedia of stem cell genetic information.

They learnt practical skills from coaches and worked in teams to choose a stem cell related problem and a way to address it using data science. The teams created videos outlining their approach. A panel of judges chose the winners, and more than 200 viewers selected a people’s choice favourite.

“A hackathon is perfect for bringing people together across disciplines and problems,” says Jessica.

“It was risky to allow teams to come up with their own problems to solve or questions to answer, but this allowed them to devise creative ideas and topics they were really invested in.”

The winning entries included:

  • a citizen science project that turns cell classification into a computer game, and tests the skills of gamers against known classifications to find the ones who are lay person ‘experts’;
  • an online information portal aiming to increase umbilical cord blood donation;
  • two teams taking two different approaches to addressing the problem of research reproducibility.

The people’s choice award went to a project addressing the shortage of stem cell donors, creating an online tool that helps potential donors get a sense of the difference their donation could make, keeps their contact information up to date and provides details of nearby clinics.

Jessica was delighted with the response, particularly the creativity of the entries and the relationship-building she saw among the participants.

“We had considerable representation from undergraduate students and it was fantastic to see them making substantial contributions during the hackathon, in amongst the postdocs, staff and PhD students.

“In particular, there was one first year undergraduate biology student who came on his own and didn’t know anybody,” she adds. “He was so blown away by the fact that you could do computational science and biology. Seeing how interdisciplinary research works in action is what we wanted our participants, especially the undergraduates, to take away from this hackathon”

See the winning entries at the AIBN website

Visit the Stem Cell Hackathon website

Browse the #stemcellhack tweets


Young scientists' work on breasts and miniature hearts awarded

“Two scientists, both from Queensland, both researching stem cells, and both working with mouse models. But their work is very different.”

That’s the way Laureate Professor Hugh Taylor AC, a specialist in Indigenous eye health, introduced Dr Felicity Davis and Associate Professor James Hudson, the winners of the 2019 Metcalf Prize for Stem Cell Research, at the award ceremony in Melbourne late last month.

(Pictured left to right) Hugh Taylor, James Hudson, Felicity Davis and Graeme Blackman.

Felicity is looking at the secret life of women’s breasts at Mater Research Institute at the University of Queensland, and James is making millions of miniature beating hearts to help find cures for cardiac diseases at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.

Breast cells know how to switch between periods of status quo and rapid change. Heart cells, by contrast, change very little, Hugh explained.

In accepting her prize, Felicity described the excitement of working with the mammary gland, one of the body’s most regenerative organs.

James described the different uses of mouse models and mini-hearts made from human stem cells. The organoids have been invaluable in drug screening, eliminating 97 per cent of false positives obtained when using mouse models alone.

Their work highlights the importance of basic biomedical research that can be built on by translational researchers.

While in Melbourne, the pair visited the ABC studios, where Patricia Karvelas interviewed them about their work, what the $50,000 Metcalf prize money will mean for their research, and the sad state of funding for science in Australia.

Listen to the radio interview online at the ABC website.

See photographs from the event at our website.


Stem cell news from around the world

Between newsletters, we share stem cell news on social media:

Here are a few stories we’ve shared recently:

Washington Post: Institute offers unproven treatments to patients — and coaches them on raising cash.

Financial Times: Organoid innovation offers potential for cancer research.

New Scientist: Two pigs engineered to have monkey cells born in China. 'Conductor' gene found in plant root stem cell 'orchestra'. Paper.

Technology Networks: How stem cells decide their identity.

The Conversation: China’s failed gene-edited baby experiment proves we’re not ready for human embryo modification.

ABC Radio National: Young scientists' work on breasts and miniature hearts awarded.

Science Daily: Leukaemia cells can transform into non-cancerous cells through epigenetic changes. Paper.

The Scientist: Spaceflight alters genes of human stem cell–derived heart cells. Paper.

San Diego Union-Tribune: Diabetics make insulin for first time with stem cell-derived therapy.

The Conversation: Three-parent IVF could prevent illness in many children (but it’s really more like 2.002-parent IVF).