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May 2021

Scientific heroes and villains; hot topics at international conferences

Bone marrow and cord blood transplants have been saving the lives of cancer patients for decades. There are promising new stem cells treatments to restore lost vision, and other potential therapies in early clinical trials.

The stem cell research field is filled with genius and incredible discoveries which have changed the world but there are also some shonky charlatans, declares a new book that sets out “to help clean up the stable of science”.

Flesh made new, by physician-scientist Professor John Rasko and writer-historian Carl Power, shares the stories of the heroes and villains of regenerative medicine. Their publisher is offering a 30% discount to our supporters. Read on for details.

Potential COVID cures, clinical trials, gene therapies for blood disorders, and mini organs in the lab: two major international conferences are seeing top researchers, clinicians and biotech companies share the latest developments in stem cell science. More below.

The search for patient-tailored leukaemia treatments by Steven Lane’s laboratory in Brisbane is continuing. In Melbourne, eye surgeon Tom Edwards is developing gene therapies to restore eyesight.

Both received funding from the Foundation, thanks to our donors. Our general manager Graeme Mehegan recently visited them. Read on to find out how their work is progressing.

Self-healing living robots, lab-created embryos, and spinal injury repair have been in the news. Read these and other stories in our regular round up of stem cell news.

Finally, warm congratulations to Professor Mark Dawson FAA FAHMS who is among the new Fellows elected by his scientific peers to the Australian Academy of Science. Mark investigates how genes function in leukaemia. His research has led to several pioneering epigenetic therapies used worldwide.

Mark won a Metcalf Prize for Stem Cell Research from the Foundation in 2017 and is an exemplar of talent the prizes hope to support. We look forward to opening the 2021 prizes for applications in the next few weeks.

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

In this bulletin:

New book shares stories of stem-cell pioneers and charlatans  

Flesh made new: the unnatural history and broken promise of stem cells – a wake-up call

“When it comes to stem cell research, there’s a lot of muck to rake,” declares a new book that sets out “to help clean up the stable of science”.

Flesh made new, by physician-scientist Professor John Rasko and writer-historian Carl Power, shares the stories of the heroes and villains of regenerative medicine – and occasionally people who are both.

Meet the late pioneering vascular surgeon, Nobel Prize winner and suspected Nazi sympathiser, Alexis Carrel, whose notorious chicken heart cell experiment pushed the false hope of cell immortality.

Or Haruko Obakata, the darling of Japanese media with her cooking apron ‘lab coat’, who announced a new way to make stem cells, before being uncovered as a fraud.

But then there are the heroes, such as cell reprogramming pioneer Shinya Yamanaka who discovered he could convert mature mouse cells into stem cells by just adding four genes; and Dottie and Don Thomas, the ‘mother’ and ‘father’ of bone marrow transplantation, a proven stem cell therapy that has saved millions of lives.

Co-author John Rasko is ideally placed to provide an expert insider’s view—he is head of the gene and stem cell therapy program at Centenary Institute and head of the department of cell and molecular therapies at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

Shonky charlatans aside,  the stem cell research field is, “filled with genius and incredible discoveries which have changed the world”, he told ABC’s The Science Show, recently.

“If we didn't have stem cells we wouldn't have vaccines that can improve people’s lives and improve certainly the COVID-19 epidemic.”

Flesh Made New was written to strip away the hype so that we can appreciate the difficulties of stem cell science and find in its hard-won achievements genuine reason for hope.

“Advocating for evidence-based medicine and community education is part of the Foundation’s mission,” says Chair Dr Graeme Blackman. “We applaud researchers like Professor Rasko who stand up for science and show why people should exercise caution when making choices about their health.”

Our supporters and subscribers can receive a 30% discount on the recommended retail price ($34.99) via Booktopia using the code FLESH at checkout until 5 June, 2021.

COVID-19 cell therapies and skin stem cells as we age: annual international scientific meetings online 

Virtual conferences share the latest stem cell science in late May and June

International Society for Stem Cell Research 2021 Annual Meeting (ISSCR 2021), 21 – 26 June

Past  ISSCR Annual Meetings have highlighted the promise of stem cell treatments in Type-1 diabetes and vision loss due to macular degeneration.

What new science will be presented at ISSCR 2021?

The 2021 Annual Meeting will feature speakers including:

  • Shinya Yamanaka, who together with John Gurdon won a 2012 Nobel Prize for the discovery that mature cells can be converted or ‘reprogrammed’ to stem cells.
  • Valentina Greco, an expert in skin stem cells and the behaviour of normal and mutant cells in the epidermis under stress and as we age.
  • Clinician-scientist Stuart H. Orkin, whose research underpins the development of gene therapies for blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease and thalassaemia.
  • Outstanding Young investigator award winner Madeline Lancaster, who was the first scientist to develop cerebral organoids as a model to study human brain development and disease.

Visit the conference website to find out more and to register:

International Society for Cell and Gene Therapy 2021 Annual Meeting (ISCT 2021), May 26 – 28

ISCT 2021 took place last week.

COVID-19 was a hot topic in 2020 and still is. Several speakers returned this year to provide an update on the latest results from ongoing cell therapy trials for COVID-19, and to address the hurdles to bringing these treatments to the clinic.

There were also panel sessions and talks on topics including:

  • Donor cell therapies: what really is a healthy donor?
  • The economics of advanced cell and gene therapy
  • Manufacturing human cells at scale via cellular reprogramming
  • Understanding the ethical considerations and necessary conditions for ‘first in human’ trials
  • Phishing for cell therapies: deceptive direct-to-consumer marketing of unproven and unlicensed treatments.

You can still visit the conference website or see the highlights and comments shared on Twitter via the hashtag #ISCT2021.

Your dollars in action: visiting leukaemia and eye treatment researchers 

Foundation general manager visits funded researchers

Clinical haematologist Associate Professor Steven Lane is studying the genetic fingerprints of blood cancer stem cells from leukaemia patients, thanks in part to the support of Foundation donors.

Earlier this year, Steven was named as one of two winners of a $55,000 2020 Metcalf Prize for Stem Cell Research. However, pandemic lockdowns turned our award ceremony into an online event.

Foundation general manager Graeme Mehegan recently visited Steven and at his lab in Brisbane, to finally pass on his award in person.

“Like many past winners, Steven was always eager to recognise the support and work of his colleagues and group members,” says Graeme. “It was a real pleasure to meet the people involved in this research and see where the funds donated by the Foundation’s supporters are ultimately going.”

Hear Steven’s interview with ABC Radio about the state-of-play with leukaemia research and treatment.

Back in Melbourne, Graeme visited Professor Tom Edwards in his lab at the Centre for Eye Research Australia where he is developing gene therapies for incurable inherited eye diseases.

Tom’s research was one of four projects chosen by the Foundation last year to have donations they attracted matched dollar-for-dollar by the Foundation.

He’s testing the treatments on eye cells created from stem cells, ahead of progressing to clinical trials. All the surgical techniques required to deliver this treatment have already been developed.

“There’s a lot of competition for large government and philanthropic grants for medical research,” says Graeme. “As a health promotion charity, we aim to provide targeted funding to promising projects so that they can do the research that strengthens their case to attract major investment.”

You can make a donation to the Foundation via 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:

Toronto Star: These mutant cacti suggest that there are better ways to battle cancer

New York Times: Linda Griffith is reframing endometriosis as a key to unlocking some of biology’s greatest secrets.

Washington Post: Frog stem cell research changes what we know about how organisms are built. Paper.

Monash University: Breakthrough discovery could speed up bone implant recovery. Paper.

EurekAlert: Targeting microRNAs could unmask hidden vulnerability in breast cancer stem cells. Paper.

SYFY Wire: These mobile, self-healing living robots were born from frog stem cells. Paper.

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

The Age: Scientists have created embryos. What does that mean? And what comes next? Paper.

ABC Radio: Tegan Taylor talks to Superstars of STEM bioengineer Kiara Bruggemann about creating the right environment for brain stem cell growth.

The Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Stem cells in hyperdrive’: Breakthrough in the hunt for a healing secret. Paper.

New Atlas: New evidence stem cell therapy helps spinal injury patients. Paper.

ABC Radio: Leading stem cell researcher unpicks the 'gold rush' surrounding stem cell therapy.

ABC News: Humble aquarium fish helps Melbourne scientists discover how to reverse muscle trauma.

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