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February 2020

$6 million for stem cell science from MRFF; heart regeneration; and what’s next for Stem Cells Australia?

Recently published research from cardiologist and stem cell researcher James Chong has shown a new protein treatment can stimulated heart regeneration after heart attack, resulting in less severe scarring.

The Foundation supported James’ developing research career through a Metcalf Prize in 2016. We’re now fund-raising to bring another of James’ stem cell treatments to clinical trials. More below.

There are big changes happening in stem cell science across Australia, with the ending of the Stem Cells Australia Special Research Initiative.

As well as chairing the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia’s board, I was an independent board member of Stem Cells Australia and I’m proud of what that organisation has achieved, from fundamental epigenetic science to clinical trials for vision-restoring treatments.

I’d like to acknowledge the work of Stem Cells Australia’s program leaders Martin Pera and, more recently, Melissa Little; members of the consortium; and especially the tireless public education work led by Megan Munsie.

The Foundation supported or partnered several of their events and patient information programs. In this bulletin, we look back at the work of Stem Cells Australia – and forward to what’s coming next, including new grants from the Medical Research Future Fund. Read on for more.

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

Kind regards,
Dr Graeme L Blackman AO
Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

In this bulletin:

Stem Cells Australia – what’s next?

Stem Cells Australia (SCA), a $24 million-dollar Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative, has formally come to an end.

Over its eight years of operation, it has brought stem cell treatments a step closer to the clinic and deepened our understanding of fundamental stem cell science.

Program leader Professor Melissa Little says the national collaborative effort has been crucial to the many achievements of Australian stem cell science.

“Our scientists are now growing heart tissue for replacement and testing of new drugs for heart repair, making mini-kidneys in the laboratory to study what happens in kidney disease, using big data to understand cellular identity, and repairing damaged corneas and restoring eye sight using grafts made from the patient’s own stem cells,” she explains.

“Furthering basic science and bringing it to the clinic needs interdisciplinary work, bringing clinicians, cell scientists, bioengineers, geneticists, data scientists, haematologists and a many other scientists together. This network has been a core strength of Stem Cells Australia, and the linkages created will continue to bear fruit.”

During its tenure, it  brought together more than 300 researchers from 14 universities and medical research institutes, graduated more than 70 PhD and Masters students, supported more than 210 early career researchers, held 97 public outreach events, and facilitated research that resulted in 15 patents lodged. SCA-supported studies comprise more than 950 journal publications.

SCA will continue as an educational website, administered by the University of Melbourne, providing teaching resources for schools, and reliable information for people making choices about their own health care.

“At its heart, this website is for patients,” says Professor Megan Munsie, who led SCA’s Engagement, Ethics and Policy Program.

 “We see the ongoing need for reliable information in this fast-moving field. That’s what we hope our website will do.”

“We’re developing it with the input of leading patient advocacy groups, such as the Chronic Illness Alliance, and well as leading academics who are experts in specific diseases, health education and ethical issues.”

This new website will launch later this year.

On the scientific research side, Health Minister Greg Hunt last year announced the establishment of the $150 million 10-year Australian Stem Cell Therapies Mission, funded through the Medical Research Future Fund and co-chaired by Melissa Little and inventor of the vaccine nanopatch, Professor Mark Kendall. Read about the initiative’s first grant round below.

 Read more about the achievements of Stem Cells Australia.

$6 million-dollar grant round open for stem cell therapy research

Open for applications; closing 4 March 2020

The first grant round of the Medical Research Future Fund Stem Cell Therapies Mission is open for applications. A total of $6 million will be awarded through the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The funding will accelerate the investigation of the use of stem cells from fat, cord blood, bone marrow and foetal tissue as possible treatments for spinal cord injuries, brain degeneration, kidney diseases, and other illnesses.

The first round involves applications from teams working on ‘proof of concept’ research targeted towards a health care outcome. Funding will target two priority areas aimed at driving innovation and accelerating implementation into clinical practice: stem cell therapies, and new treatments using human tissues made from stem cells.

More information about the grant round on the GrantConnect website.

Read more about the Stem Cells Therapies Mission.

Research news: forming better scars in broken hearts

A simple protein to fight Australia’s biggest killer

Although heart disease is Australia’s single leading cause of death – killing more than 18,500 people each year – many heart attacks aren’t fatal. Some can go undetected, but still do permanent damage.

Cardiologist and 2016 Metcalf Prize-winner Associate Professor James Chong is a step closer to a new treatment for these ‘silent’ heart attacks – a protein therapy that results in stronger scar tissue with a better blood supply. This reduces the loss of function and improves the odds of long-term survival.

James and his colleagues have found that giving the protein therapy to pigs which have had a heart attack improved their chances of survival by 40 per cent, compared with control animals. Pigs are a useful pre-clinical trial animal because they have a similar sized heart and heart rate to humans.

The discovery was published last month in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Further animal studies are needed to check the safety of the treatment and the optimum dose before trials with human patients begin.

Read ABC News’ story about James’ discovery.

“Ultimately, what I’m working towards is to be able to provide new treatments to extend the quality and length of life of my patients,” James says. To that end, he is also pursuing other ways to treat damaged hearts,

With the Foundation’s support, he is working on a treatment for heart failure patients that works by injecting stem cell-derived heart muscle cells or ‘cardiomyocytes’ directly into the injured region.

This is one of the Foundation’s matched funding projects. We aim to provide $1 million for the project, by matching, dollar for dollar, every public donation of $500 or more. Donations can be made online.

James is a researcher at the Westmead Institute of Medical Research at the University of Sydney, and a cardiologist at Westmead Hospital.

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:

ABC Landline: IVF pioneer Alan Trounson's work started with sheep fertility, helped forge new research into stem cells.

EurekAlert: Kidney stem cells can be isolated from urine. Paper.

The Conversation (USA): Brain organoids help neuroscientists understand brain development, but aren't perfect matches for real brains

The Conversation (UK): Autism: stem cell clinics are offering treatments despite lack of evidence it works.

BBC Radio 4: Special investigation: the stem cell hard cell.

Microscopy Australia: Breakthrough protein treatment repairs damaged hearts. Snake stem cells create real venom to use as medicine. Paper.

Nature: Research on embryo-like structures struggles to win US government funding.

CNN: Meet the xenobot: world's first living, self-healing robots created from frog stem cells. Paper.

The Hill: Do you know the 3 most important health revolutions of the past decade?

AAAS: Young stem cell donors can transfer mutations to patients.

The Niche: Perspectives on CRISPR baby guy He Jiankui (贺建奎) going to jail.

National Institutes of Health (USA): NIH launches first U.S. clinical trial of patient-derived stem cell therapy to replace dying cells in retina.


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