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July 2023

Two $60K prizes for rising stars. Plus, what’s the science behind the embryo model headlines?

We’re looking for up-and-coming researchers with big ideas who we can support through the 2023 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research.

Two prizes, worth $60,000 each, will be awarded to one male and one female mid-career stem cell scientist. Applications close on Friday 28 July 2023. Please consider if there’s someone you should nominate. Read on for more details.

Last year we supported pioneers in sight, and in how blood cancers are controlled.

Anai Gonzalez-Cordero from Children’s Medical Research Institute aims to restore sight in people with inherited retinal diseases, by repairing or replacing damaged light-sensing cells in the eye. Ashley Ng from WEHI is revealing how blood stem cells are controlled, and how they can go rogue, leading to blood cancers.

For all the promising work we promote, we also keep an eye on some of the more breathless headlines stem cell research sometimes generates.

“Breakthrough!” “A major scientific first!” “The world’s first human synthetic embryos!”

These are a taste of some of recent stories on the development of embryo models using just stem cells. But the reporting is somewhat premature, for a study presented at a conference and which is yet to be peer-reviewed.

In this newsletter, we provide a reality check on the science behind these headlines.

More below.

In other news:

  • Melbourne researchers have used heart and lung stem cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 to better understand how COVID-19 impacts different organs, paving the way for more targeted treatments.
  • UK and Malaysian scientists are calling for regulation of ‘treatment’ fads.
  • Stem cell research is happening in space: a Chinese team has grown blood stem cells from embryonic stem cells in space and a separate Axiom Space mission has sent a Saudi biomedical researcher to the International Space Station to conduct stem cell and breast cancer research.

These and more 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:

Do you know a rising star in stem cell research?

Applications for $60,000 prizes for stem cell research now open

Two up-and-coming leaders in stem cell science will receive $60,000 each to boost their career to the next level. If you know a promising stem cell researcher, encourage them to apply.

The 2023 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research are open to mid-career researchers working in stem cell research in Australia. They could be working in medicine or agriculture, government or academia, as long as they have a primary focus on stem cells.

Applications are open to those who have completed their PhD or MD (research-based) within the past five to 10 years (from August 2013 to August 2018). Allowances will be made for research-career breaks, such as maternity leave.

The winners will be chosen for their scientific excellence, proven leadership ability, and the potential to have a continuing influence on stem cell research in Australia.

Many past prize recipients have gone on to win significant government and philanthropic grants and prizes such as:

  • How embryos and cancer cells grow: the year after winning a 2020 Metcalf Prize, molecular biologist Melanie Eckersley-Maslin was awarded an $8 million Snow Fellowship to study how cancer progresses.
  • Researching stem cell treatment for healing broken hearts: cardiologist and 2016 Metcalf Prize winner James Chong was awarded $4.9 million by the Medical Research Future Fund 2020 Stem Cell Mission for his work, which will allow clinical trials to go ahead.
  • How stem cells and calcium affect breast function: in 2020, mammary biologist and 2019 Metcalf winner Felicity Davis received a grant of DKK 25 million (AUD $5.5 million) from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to continue her work investigating how breasts change through life.
  • Building a blood cancer treatment from the ground up: clinician-scientist and 2017 Metcalf Prize winner Mark Dawson won the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year at the 2020 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. He has since been elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

You can read more about the Metcalf Prize alumni and their research on our website.

The Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research recognise and honour the exceptional contribution made to stem cell research by the late Professor Donald Metcalf. Over his 50-year career, Don helped transform cancer treatment and transplantation medicine, and paved the way for potential stem cell therapy for many other conditions.

The Metcalf Prizes form part of the Foundation’s mission to support researchers whose work improves our understanding of the human body and the diseases that affect it and leads to proven stem cell therapies.

Applications close Friday 28 July 2023. We encourage last year’s unsuccessful applicants to apply again this year if they are still eligible.

To apply online, and for a full list of criteria and conditions, head to the Foundation’s website:

If you have any questions about eligibility or the application process, please contact Tanya Ha at Science in Public, who administers the awards for the Foundation: [email protected]

What is really news and what do we know about model embryos?

The science behind the headlines

“Breakthrough!” “A major scientific first!” “The world’s first human synthetic embryos!”

These are some of the breathless headlines that have appeared in the media since researchers announced they had developed embryo models using just stem cells in a presentation at the 2023 annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) in Boston.

Some of the media reporting created confusion and missed some important information.

To clarify, these models are NOT ‘real’ embryos. And it wasn’t a world first.

The scientists involved created ‘model embryos’ from stem cells – clusters of cells that allow researchers to study key stages of early human development in the laboratory. They do not have the same potential to develop as a natural human embryo and should not be confused with embryos created from sperm-egg fertilisation nor referred to as ‘synthetic’ embryos.

The first stem cell models to mimic human “blastocysts”, the very early-stage embryo development just prior to implantation, were published in two separate papers in Nature in 2021. Researchers used slightly different approaches to form 3-dimensional structures.  One group, led by inaugural Metcalf Prize winner and Monash University researcher Jose Polo, reprogrammed skin cells before creating embryo models that they called “iblastoids”. At the time, Jose told The Age reporter Liam Mannix, “I do not feel like I have created life.”

“Basically, we just created a good model,” he said. “I am 100 per cent sure, based on all available evidence, that they can only model the very early stages of development, and therefore they cannot develop into a human.”

New research hasn’t been peer reviewed.

Peer review is the self-correcting quality control system that allows experts to check each other’s work, giving broader society confidence in the discoveries scientists make.

“It can be dangerous to report on work without the full picture on how experiments were conducted,” says Professor Megan Munsie, Non-Executive Director of the Foundation.

Megan explains that while scientists are encouraged to talk about their work at conferences, including sharing research findings that are yet to be published, best practice usually sees mainstream reporting only after a paper has been peer-reviewed. 

“This should be especially the case in research that is highly nuanced with complex scientific, ethical and regulatory considerations,” she says.

Read full story online.

Further relevant reading/listening

ISSCR: The ISSCR Statement on New Research with Embryo Models

ABC Science: 'Synthetic human embryos' were created using stem cells. What are they, and why were they made? (from June 2023)

The Conversation: Researchers have grown ‘human embryos’ from skin cells. What does that mean, and is it ethical? (from March 2021)

ABC Radio National Science Friction: 14-day rule on human embryo research – why do scientists want it lifted? (from June 2021)

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:

News Medical: ‘Researchers use an unprecedented stem cell zoo to study developmental time’

The Global Herald: China makes progress in in-orbit tests on human embryonic stem cells

University of Reading: Stem cell scientists call for regulation of ‘treatment’ fads

Axiom Space: Meet Rayyanah Barnawi - a stem cell scientist and now an astronaut

Fox News: Human-induced stem cells from Seattle now in space

MCRI: Lung and heart stem cell research paves way for new COVID-19 treatments

ISSCR: Stem Cells and Cellular Reprogramming: A Celebration of 10 Year of Outstanding Science in Stem Cell Reports

Daily Bruin: UCLA study investigates link between exercise and stem cell restoration

Laboratory Equipment: 'Village in a dish' accelerates stem cell research

Cancer Research UK: Age: the forgotten cancer risk factor?

New Scientist: Stem cells from umbilical cord 'goo' delay type 1 diabetes progression

New Atlas: Stomach stem cells hold promise as a cure for diabetes

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