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February 2024

Could stem cells make it easier to swallow? + $100K grants

Eight-year-old Lilly Lloyd-Morgan lives with a debilitating condition that stops her swallowing food. Melbourne researchers Dr Lincon Stamp and Dr Marlene Hao are developing a stem cell therapy to treat the disease.

Lilly’s parents Rhys and Marianne are leading the charge to further fund Lincon and Marlene’s work in partnership with the Foundation.

Read on to find out more about the research and how you can help.

The project was one of four selected for our 2023 Matched Funding Program.

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 2024 round of four $100,000 grants. Details below.

Find out how clusters of light-sensing eye cells grown in a petri dish are crucial in developing gene therapies for inherited blindness. Known as organoids, clusters of cells like these are also being used to test new or improved treatments for heart and muscle conditions, brain disorders, and some types of cancer.

A panel of experts shared the latest science at a public forum. You can watch a recording of it online. Read on for more information.

I’d like to extend warm congratulations to Foundation board member and cord blood expert Associate Professor Ngaire Elwood AO who was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in this year’s Australia Day Honours.  

Ngaire is Director of the Bone Marrow Institute Cord Blood Bank and Head of the Cord Blood Stem Cell Research Laboratory at Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI). She’s also active in public education – her support for our Cord blood donation 101 website page and our Stem Cells and Cancer webinar are just two examples of her contributions. It’s wonderful to see her work recognised.

Finally, our latest Metcalf Prize winners bioengineer Jiao Jiao Li and intestinal stem cells researcher Dustin Flanagan have been in the media talking about their osteoarthritis and stomach cancer research respectively. And the research of Foundation board member Caroline Gargett is in the spotlight in a fascinating feature on the long-overlooked field of menstrual stem cells and their significance in endometriosis. Catch up on these and other stories in our regular round-up of stem cell news from around the world.

Kind regards,

Dr Graeme L Blackman AO

Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

In this bulletin:

A glimmer of hope for patients who can’t swallow

Little Lilly Lloyd-Morgan, aged 8, lives with a debilitating condition which stops her swallowing food. But there is hope on the horizon thanks to a potential stem cell therapy being developed by Dr Lincon Stamp and Dr Marlene Hao at the University of Melbourne.

Lilly’s parents Rhys and Marianne are leading the charge to further fund Lincon and Marlene’s work in partnership with the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

The disease, known as achalasia, causes the oesophagus to stop functioning. Food builds up in the oesophagus, unable to enter the stomach. There is no cure. The most common treatment is surgery, which is only partially effective – 70% of patients still experience chest pain and difficulty swallowing, and they remain at a higher risk of developing oesophageal cancer.

Oesophageal achalasia kills nerve cells at the base of the oesophagus. Its causes are not known. Lilly’s identical twin Bella does not have the disease. These nerve cells control the pulsating motion that squeezes food through our digestive system and cause the oesophagus to open to allow food to enter the stomach.

Lincon and Marlene are developing a therapy that involves making healthy nerve cells from stem cells. These cells would be transplanted into patients like Lilly to replace the damaged or lost nerve cells and restore function.

Rhys and Marianne are taking advantage of the Foundation’s Matched Funding Program whereby, once $50,000 is raised, the Foundation will match it dollar-for-dollar to provide a total of $100,000.

They have raised $30,000 so far and so are looking for donations to reach their target of a further $20,000.

“A stem cell-based cure would be a godsend to Lilly and other people affected by this disease,” says Rhys, a Brisbane-based lawyer.

Read the full story and make a donation at the Foundation’s website.

$100K funding opportunity for stem cell scientists

Open for expressions of interest, closing Monday 4 March

The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia invites applications for up to four $100,000 research grants as part of its 2024 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 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
  • In preclinical studies that would inform a clinical trial OR are ready to conduct a clinical trial.

Past successful applicants are invited to submit further application(s) 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 close on Monday 4 March 2024. Find out more at 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.

Scientists and projects we’ve supported through the Program in the past include:

  • Geraldine Mitchell from the O’Brien Institute at St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne is developing 3D blood vessel networks covered by skin, grown from stem cells, for tissue engineering and wound healing. This is the equivalent of a human tissue skin flap.
  • Atul Malhotra from Monash University is developing a treatment for brain injury in extremely pre-term babies (those born before 28 weeks gestation) that uses a baby’s own umbilical cord blood cells therapeutically.
  • Sarah Withey from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland is using mini liver 'organoids' made from stem cells to test a treatment for children with a rare, genetic, progressive, life-limiting disease Ataxia Telangiectasia (A-T).
  • Peter Houweling from Murdoch Children's Research Institute is developing a treatment for a type of muscular dystrophy, a group of genetic diseases that cause progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass.
  • Raymond Wong from the Centre for Eye Research Australia and the University of Melbourne is developing a gene therapy for late-stage retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited retinal disease that causes progressive loss of vision.
  • Mark Shackleton is from the Cancer Development and Treatment Group Laboratory at the Alfred Hospital and Monash University. Mark seeks to develop new treatments for the skin pigment disorder vitiligo and for melanoma, a deadly type of skin cancer.

Watch: How organoids are paving the way for new therapies

Grow heart cells together in a petri dish and they know what to do ­– they start beating. Now they’re being used to find drugs to heal the heart. Eye cells are being grown to test gene therapies for blindness. Human brain cells growing together make connections and can even learn to play Pong! They are also providing a valuable tool to reveal how the brain ages.

Scientists call these clusters of cells ‘organoids’. In a recent public event, a panel of these scientists explained how these lab-grown models of organs made from stem cells are being used to pave the way for new treatments for many diseases.

“An example of how we’ve used this in the past is to find a new drug for heart disfunction caused by inflammation. This could be cause by severe viral infection like COVID-19 or severe bacterial infection, like sepsis,” said Dr Richard Mills, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and reNEW Melbourne.

You can watch a recording of the event on the Foundation website

You’ll also hear:

  • about research into understanding and treating inherited eye and ear diseases, which can affect vision, hearing and balance – Dr Anai Gonzalez Cordero, Children’s Medical Research Institute.
  • how lab-grown tumours derived from patient biopsies are helping doctors tailor treatments for an aggressive form of bowel cancer – Professor Helen Abud, Monash University
  • about brain condition research, the ethical implications of organoid research, and a Q&A session with the live audience.

This event was held at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, hosted by the Australasian Society for Stem Cell Research and supported by the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia. It was also proudly supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Medicine, reNEW, and the NSW Stem Cell Network.

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 News Breakfast: Can stem cell make drugs for osteoarthritis? Featuring Jiao Jiao Li.

ABC Radio Melbourne: Why stomach stem cells behaving badly can lead to cancer: newly minted Metcalf Prize winner Dr Dustin Flanagan chats with David Astle and Bel Smith.

Wangaratta Chronicle: ‘Dusty’ joins elite stem cell research company.

Knowable Magazine: The untapped potential of stem cells in menstrual blood. Featuring Caroline Gargett.

CBS News: London laboratory uses artificial intelligence to help detect and treat heart disease.

New Atlas: Replacement cartilage can grow in any shape with 3D-printed “spheroids”. Paper.

Medical Xpress: Treating and preventing abnormal heart beats with stem cell muscle grafts. Paper.

Live Science: 1st-of-its-kind therapy blocks immune attack after stem-cell transplant. Paper.

Drug Target Review: Decoding stem cells for personalised regenerative medicine.

The Guardian: The 10 biggest science stories of 2023 – chosen by scientists.

The Guardian: US regulators approve two gene therapies for sickle cell disease.

Nature: How CRISPR gene editing could help treat Alzheimer’s.

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