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Meet a board member: cancer survivor and scientist Ngaire Elwood

July 31, 2018

The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia is delighted to announce that cord blood expert Dr Ngaire Elwood has joined our Board of Directors. Here is a story from one of our past newsletters about Ngaire and her work.

Ngaire Elwood’s life was saved by science. As a teenager, she was treated for osteosarcoma, a common form of bone cancer that had a survival rate of about five per cent prior to the advent of chemotherapy.


Now she’s helping others survive cancer, matching donated cord blood to patients who need it and conducting research into the further medical potential of stem cell-rich cord blood.

After her bone cancer diagnosis, her treatment involved an above-knee amputation, followed by 18 months of high-dose chemotherapy. Even with this ‘aggressive therapy’ the survival rate is about 60 per cent.

“This really influenced what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to work on better and more specific, targeted ways of treating cancer,” Ngaire says.

Ngaire is now head of the Cord Blood Stem Cell Research Program at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and director of Melbourne’s cord blood bank.

Her research includes exploring the different types of stem cells that are in cord blood, investigating the use of cord blood in heart repair and the treatment of cerebral palsy, and improving the use of cord blood in bone marrow transplants for treating blood cancers and other diseases.

Ngaire and her team are also doing research towards establishing a different type of stem cell bank that produces induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells derived from cord blood.

“In the future it’s envisaged that there will be a network of these banks around the world with specific stem cell lines registered on an international registry, like the current bone marrow donor registry. Patients requiring cells of a particular tissue type will be able to access the bank, and a provider will derive the cells of interest—for example, islet cells for insulin—from the matching IPS cell lines registered.”

Ngaire says that it’s rare for researchers to see the direct applications of what they’re working on.

“One of the things I love about working at the cord blood bank is knowing that every packet of cord blood we send out to patients carries the hope of a cure. That’s quite personally satisfying, while I’m also doing research that’s probably a long way from the clinic.”

In 2013, Ngaire had a second brush with cancer—this time breast cancer—with treatment involving chemotherapy and surgery. So far, all is good.

“It makes you really grateful that all that basic research is going on. Back in the seventies the role of oestrogen receptors in breast cancer was being nutted out. This led to the use of oestrogen receptor-blocking drugs. In 2013, I became the recipient of the outcomes of that research.”

Ngaire continues to be excited by her field, particularly the explosion of research in immunology and cell therapies.

“To see that whole field now providing cures for people who otherwise wouldn’t be here—it’s just amazing.”

Read Ngaire’s researcher profile on the MCRI website.

Meet the rest of the Foundation's board and executive.

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