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June 2021

COVID heart treatment trial; Prizes for rising stars

COVID 19 causes heart damage. Brisbane researchers using mini-hearts have identified an existing drug that could stop it. Patient trials are underway in America. More below.

The Foundation was an early supporter of the researcher, James Hudson, who created the heart tissue vital to these discoveries, awarding him the Metcalf Prize for Stem Cell Research in 2019.

We are currently looking for other rising stars like James who deserve recognition and a funding injection to take their careers to the next level. Nominations for the 2021 Metcalf Prizes are now open for mid-career stem cell scientists.

Two prizes, worth $55,000 each, will be awarded to one male and one female mid-career researcher.

Applications close 11.59pm on Friday 30 July 2021. We encourage people who applied last year to do so again. Read on for more details.

In other news,

  • Adelaide scientists are seeing if faecal transplants could stop bone marrow transplant rejection,
  • Melbourne researchers seeing promising results from a stem cell therapy to treat mice suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and
  • there are international calls for updating embryo research guidelines to consider the ethical implications of new discoveries. We will report on these issues in a future newsletter.

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:

Stem cells help unveil potentially lifesaving COVID treatment

Mini-hearts made from stem cells reveal how COVID-19 causes heart damage, leading to drug treatment trials

In severe cases of COVID-19, out-of-control inflammation rampages through the body damaging tissues and organs such as the heart but, thanks to Brisbane researcher Associate Professor James Hudson, we may be on track to prevent or even reverse that harm.

James grew thousands of functioning mini-hearts from stem cells, which he and his colleagues used to track down the specific inflammatory pathways causing the damage by exposing the heart organoids to blood serum from COVID patients.

This was a huge scientific effort, involving James’ team at QIMR Berghofer, and collaborators at the University of Sydney, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Monash University, and companies Resverlogix and Dynomics.

“We then used our mini-heart organoids to screen several existing drugs and discovered ones that can prevent and reverse the damage,” James explains.

Based on this Australian research, the Canadian biotechnology company Resverlogix is now running a phase II clinical trial of the drug Apabetalone to see if it can improve the outcome of hospitalised COVID patients.

The drug was able to be rapidly repurposed straight to phase II trials as it was already in phase III human trials for treating cardiovascular disease. It recently received breakthrough therapy designation from the US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration.

“It’s a tablet, so if someone gets COVID-19 they can go to hospital and start taking the drug. It could potentially stop people from dying or prevent some of the side effects of the disease. There is also evidence that it may act on multiple organs,” James says.

“It could be transformational. It’s a small molecule that’s easy and cheap to produce, and stable at room temperature – that makes it much more accessible to everyone.”

James’ work is a direct application of the research for which he won a 2019 Metcalf Prize for Stem Cell Research. Even then his vision was to mass-produce mini-hearts from stem cells to provide living tissue to rapidly test the potential of hundreds of existing and new drugs to treat different diseases.

James is also working with regular collaborator and fellow Metcalf Prize winner Enzo Porrello from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Their research has benefitted from $390,000 in funding from the Medical Research Future Fund to establish human stem cell-based models of COVID-19 infection, to better understand the disease and screen potential treatments.

James says winning the Metcalf Prize helped raise his profile and gave valuable recognition of his work, which helped attract further funding and support, positioning him to rise to the challenge when a global pandemic struck.

His message to up-and-coming researchers considering entering the Metcalf Prizes: “It’s a great initiative. It raises your profile and helps you network with senior stem cell scientists. You should go for it!”

Read more about James’ COVID research on the QIMR Berghofer website. Read the Cell paper, publishing the research.

Do you know a rising star in stem cell research?

Applications for $55,000 prizes for stem cell research now open

Two up-and-coming leaders in stem cell science will be awarded $55,000 each to boost their career to the next level. If you know a promising stem cell researcher, encourage them to apply.

The 2021 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, and have a primary focus on stem cells.

Applications are open to those who have completed their PhD or MD (research-based) within the past 5-10 years (from August 2011 to August 2016). 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.

Past Metcalf Prize winners include:

  • Melbourne molecular biologist Melanie Eckersley-Maslin
  • Brisbane haematologist Steven Lane
  • Brisbane mammary biologist Felicity Davis
  • Brisbane biologist and bioengineer James Hudson
  • Newcastle leukaemia researcher Heather Lee
  • Melbourne heart development researcher Enzo Porrello
  • Melbourne haematologist Mark Dawson
  • Brisbane computational biologist Jessica Mar
  • Sydney heart clinician and researcher James Chong
  • Melbourne immunologist Tracy Heng
  • bioinformatician Christine Wells
  • Perth geneticist Ryan Lister
  • Tasmanian neural stem cell researcher Kaylene Young
  • Monash University reprogramming legend Jose Polo.

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 in the treatment of many other conditions.

The Metcalf Prizes support the Foundation’s mission to support researchers working sound science that improves our understanding of the human body and its different diseases, and that leads to proven stem cell therapies.

Applications close Friday 31 July 2021. 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 are administering the awards for the Foundation: [email protected].

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:

Spectrum: Enzyme blockers may counteract excess protein levels in fragile X syndrome

Sydney Morning Herald: Embryo research law needs tweaking to catch up with science

9News: Australian scientists make major Parkinson's disease breakthrough

Nature: Stem-cell guidelines: why it was time for an update

Daily Bruin: UCLA-led team develops potential treatment for children with rare immune disease

Science Alert: This Beating Sesame Seed-Sized 'Human Heart' Grew Itself in a Lab

ABC News: Printing meat from stem cells could be the future of food, but consumers will need convincing

EurekAlert: A connection between senescence and stem cells caused by a breast cancer-initiating protein

The Science Advisory Board: AI tracks cell movements in stem cell colonies

The Advertiser: SAHMRI faecal transplant research to stop bone marrow stem cell rejection [paywall]

Optometry Today: Tiny ‘ice cube tray’ could help restore sight

BioNews: First stage of human embryo development created with lab-grown stem cells

The Lewiston Tribune: Commentary: Paper boosting stem cell treatments retracted

EurekAlert: The origin of reproductive organs

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