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February 2023

Cord blood trial for the tiniest babies + $100K grants

Melbourne researcher Atul Malhotra is carrying out preliminary clinical trials on a stem cell treatment for brain injury in extremely premature babies.

The project was one of four selected for our 2022 Matched Funding Program.

The trial uses a baby’s own stem cells taken from their umbilical cord blood and seeks to prevent serious conditions, such as cerebral palsy. Read on to find out more about this research.

We’re now looking for the next Matched Funding projects, so if you know a stem cell scientist whose research projects are nearing clinical trials, encourage them to apply for the 2023 round of four $100,000 grants. Details below.

If you’re trying to understand the potential of gene or cell therapies take a look at our forum, now available on our website. More below.

I’d like to extend warm congratulations to mini-kidney pioneer Professor Melissa Little AC who was appointed as Companion of the Order of Australia in this year’s Australia Day Honours.

Congratulations also to outgoing Foundation Director Professor James Angus AO who has been appointed as inaugural Chair of the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics (Cumming Centre).

We thank him for his service to the Foundation, particularly as a Metcalf Prizes judge and a member of our Scientific and Ethics Committee, and we wish him well in his important work to safeguard Australia in future pandemics.

Also in this newsletter: 2016 Metcalf Prize winner James Chong has developed injections for healing heart scarring, and scientists have reversed signs of ageing in mice. More in our roundup of stem cell news.

Kind regards,

Dr Graeme L Blackman AO

Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

In this bulletin:

Teaspoons of treatment for the tiniest of patients

Extremely premature babies’ own stem cells could hold the key to a new treatment for brain injury associated with preterm birth.

Monash University researcher Associate Professor Atul Malhotra, backed by the Foundation, is leading a clinical trial to evaluate the safety and feasibility of this treatment in 20 patients before proceeding to larger trials.

The treatment uses stem cells taken from as little as seven millilitres of umbilical cord blood – a crucial consideration with patients who weigh 500 grams or less.

The Foundation is supporting the trial through the Matched Funding Program, with $50,000 contributed by a private individual donor, matched dollar-for-dollar by the Foundation.

Atul has seen firsthand the problems of extreme prematurity in his role as consultant neonatologist at Monash Children’s Hospital.

“We have to work really hard to keep them alive to start with. But then we’re hoping to give them a life that is fulfilling and without major disabilities,” says Atul.

Advances in medicine mean more preterm babies are surviving than ever before, but there are no effective therapies to prevent or treat preterm brain injury.

More than 3,000 very preterm babies are born every year in Australia. While this represents less than one per cent of all births, their complex medical conditions represent a huge cost to the healthcare system and community.

Up to half of all babies born before 28 weeks will have a developmental problem. Around 10 per cent will have cerebral palsy and 20 to 30 per cent of the rest will have a learning disability or behavioural problem.

Atul and his colleagues initially received seed funding from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance three years ago to explore the potential to harvest blood from suitable preterm babies and extract stem cells.

“A baby’s first blood cells are a rich mixture,” Atul says. “They have cells that have healing properties that can dampen inflammation and repair damaged tissues.”

His team has been able to extract enough cells to provide a dose of cell therapy in seven to nine millilitres of harvested cord blood – a little under two teaspoons’ worth – in 70 per cent of patients, detailed in a newly published journal article.

Read full story on the Foundation’s website.

$100K funding opportunity for stem cell scientists

Open for Expressions of Interest, closing Monday 6 March

The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia invites applications for up to four $100,000 research grants as part of its 2023 Matched Funding Program.

Under the program, the Foundation will match any donation it receives from an approved donor (or donors) up to a maximum of $50,000 with up to $50,000 dollars of its own funds, to potentially provide a total of $100,000 for a successful research project.

Ideally, the lead researcher (or their host institution) would find and introduce the donor to the Foundation, however, if they don’t, the Foundation will try to source an appropriate donor through its newsletters, website and social media.

To be eligible the research project must be:

  • Using stem cell technology
  • Performed predominantly in Australia
  • Preclinical studies that would inform a clinical trial OR ready to conduct a clinical trial.

Past successful applicants are invited to submit further application(s) in subsequent years and these will be judged alongside other applications received in that year.

Researchers interested in applying for a grant under the program should complete an Expression of Interest (found on our website) and forward it to us as directed.

Applications will close on Monday 6 March 2022. For more information, an overview of past funding recipients, and to download the Expression of Interest form, visit the Foundation’s website.

The Foundation hopes to support a diversity of projects in stem cell research. Applications from gender and culturally diverse backgrounds are encouraged.

VIDEO: What do new gene and cell therapies have to offer?

Forum event takes questions from patients and the broader public directly to the scientists

  • What do new gene and cell therapies have to offer conditions like cancer, inherited eye diseases, spinal muscular atrophy and other degenerative diseases?
  • Can we engineer immune cells to treat cancer?
  • Or bring eye sight by fixing a faulty gene?
  • Are inherited genetic diseases a life sentence?

These questions and more were discussed at a recent public event held at the State Library of Victoria, supported by the Foundation.

A panel of researchers and clinicians shared their perspectives on treatments for:

  • leukaemia and haemophilia: Dr Ashley Ng, WEHI, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Royal Melbourne Hospital
  • childhood neurological diseases: Dr Sandi Kariyawasam, Sydney Children’s Hospital
  • retinal diseases: Dr Tom Edwards, Centre for Eye Research Australia
  • blindness and deafness: Dr Anai Gonzalez-Cordero, Children’s Medical Research Institute
  • muscular dystrophy: Dr Peter Houweling, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

This forum was hosted by Foundation director and stem cell biologist Professor Megan Munsie as part of the 2022 Australasian Society of Stem Cell Research Annual Scientific Meeting. It also featured the moving story of advocate and community leader Julie Cini who lost both of her children to the rare genetic condition spinal muscular atrophy.

Watch a recording of the event online 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:

Cosmos magazine: Human stem cell-derived tissue transplanted into rats show potential for repairing damaged brains.

Technology News: Could we slow aging by rejuvenating old blood stem cells? Paper.

Cosmos magazine: Stem cell derived organoids could one day help treat conditions like kidney disease: Professor Melissa Little, stem cell scientist, appointed as Companion of the Order of Australia.

Nature: Seven technologies to watch in 2023.

SciTechDaily: One step closer to artificial organs: living fossil provides new insight.

9 News: Injection to heal heart scarring could help tackle one of Australia's leading killers.

Science: Two research teams reverse signs of aging in mice.

New Scientist: Fetal stem cell treatment for multiple sclerosis shows promising signs.

The Scientist: Male and female stem cells derived from one donor in scientific first.

EurekAlert: Can stem cells improve shoulder surgery? Paper.

The Guardian: Radical new therapy for Parkinson’s will use stem cell transplants.

The Hippocratic Post: Stem-cell derived kidneys could improve disease research and treatment. Paper.

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