2020 in review; Four $100K funding opportunities in 2021
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.
They represent a microcosm of the wider narrative of stem cells in medicine. The field has been saving lives for decades through a limited number of proven treatments. It will save more as the science progresses, but we need to exercise caution, especially with unproven therapies.
We will share more of the year’s top stories of stem cell science on Twitter over the holidays using the hashtag #StemCellsIn2020.
And in February, expressions of interest will open for four $100,000 grants for research projects using stem cell technology that are nearing clinical trials. Our Matched Funding Program ensures that your contribution goes further. Details below.
We look forward to sharing more news in 2021, starting in January with the announcement of our support for two remarkable stem cell researchers through the $55,000 Metcalf Prizes.
Wishing you a happy and safe holiday season.
Dr Graeme L Blackman AO
Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia
In this bulletin:
- 2020 highlights … and lowlights …
- Scientists: funding to help bring your ideas to clinical trials
- Stem cell news from around the world
Living robots, questionable COVID-19 cures, and sound science bringing therapies to trials. Here’s our year in review.
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.
Call for expressions of interest for up to $100,000 per project
Next year, the Foundation will provide up to four $100,000 research grants as part of its Matched Funding Program.
Expressions of interest will open in February, so now is the time to think about applying or encouraging researchers developing promising treatments to do so.
Under the Program, the Foundation will match money it receives from approved donors up to a maximum of $50,000, potentially providing a total of $100,000 for a successful research project.
To be eligible the project must:
- Use stem cell technology
- Take place predominantly in Australia
- Be at the late pre-clinical trial stage in readiness for clinical trials OR ready to conduct a clinical trial.
Ideally, the lead researcher would find and introduce the donor to the Foundation, but if this does not occur the Foundation will use its communication channels to try to source an appropriate one.
The projects selected in 2020 are already fully funded, taking a variety of different approaches to finding donors:
- Dr Tom Edwards from the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) and the University of Melbourne is working on gene therapy for inherited retinal diseases. CERA raised the entire amount by holding a special fundraising campaign on World Sight Day.
- Professor John Bateman from Murdoch Children's Research Institute is researching genetic disorders of bone and cartilage. Family members and business associates donated to his research, delighted the Foundation would match their contribution.
- Professor Mark Shackleton from the Alfred Hospital and Monash University is developing new treatments for the skin pigment disorder vitiligo and for melanoma, a deadly type of skin cancer. He received funds from two major contributors: a corporate donor and a vitiligo foundation.
- Associate Professor Mike Doran from Queensland University of Technology and the Translational Research Institute is working with the departments of orthopaedic surgery at the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital and the Princess Alexandra Hospital. Mike is exploring the potential of stem cells to promote healing in long bones. His project was fully funded through support from Inner Wheel Australia.
Applications will open on Monday 8 February, and close on Monday 8 March. For more information and to download the Expression of Interest form, visit the Foundation’s website.
Between newsletters, we share stem cell news on social media:
Here are a few stories we’ve shared recently:
Ars Technica: Two very different approaches to restoring vision.
EurekAlert: Your own stem cells can grow missing bones.
CBS San Francisco Bay: Proposition 14 stem cell research funding initiative approved by California voters.
Phys.org: How stem cells choose their careers.
Genetic Engineering News: Human airway basal stem cells created from patients’ cells.