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November 2021

Better bone marrow transplants and making a virtual human cell – Metcalf Prize winners announced

I am delighted to announce the two brilliant scientists who are the winners of the 2021 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research.

Associate Professor Siok Tey, a clinician researcher at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, is working to improve bone marrow transplantation for leukaemia patients by untangling the mixed bag of good and potentially harmful cells.  

Dr Pengyi Yang of the Children's Medical Research Institute and at The University of Sydney wants to transform stem cell research using computer science. He is mapping the many, complex influences that control stem cells and how they specialise.

Each will receive a $55,000 prize from the Foundation. We hope that investing in their careers will advance Australian stem cell research and, importantly, improve the prognosis for patients.

Siok and Pengyi will be presented with their prizes at a special event next month.

Read on to find out more about their research and achievements.

Kind regards,

Dr Graeme L Blackman AO

Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

In this bulletin:

More ‘good cells’, safer treatments for leukaemia patients

Associate Professor Siok Tey is researching treatments that will improve the survival and quality of life for her patients with leukaemia or other blood cancers.

“Bone marrow transplantation is an important form of treatment for blood cancers, but it cures only two-thirds of patients,” says Siok, a clinician researcher at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.

Siok will use her $55,000 Metcalf Prize to improve the outcomes of bone marrow transplantation, which rebuilds the blood and immune systems to protect patients from leukaemia relapse. Not all patients, however, stay in long-term remission, and the treatment often comes with serious side effects.

Siok plans to identify which transplanted cells provide protection from leukaemia relapse and which ones contribute to complications, and then to use this knowledge to develop better treatments.

In recognition of her leadership in the field, Siok has received one of two annual Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Fifty years ago, certain blood cancers, such as aggressive types of leukaemia, were essentially a death sentence. Nowadays, chemotherapy and radiation therapy ensures 70 to 80 per cent of cases go into remission, but some cancer cells evade treatment. For some patients, the risk of relapse can be as high as 90 per cent and bone marrow (blood stem cell) transplant is the only pathway to long-term remission.

Each year, about 700 Australians receive a bone marrow transplant, using cells from a healthy donor to treat leukaemia or other blood cancers.

“Bone marrow transplantation has saved thousands of lives, but it is very much a broad-brush approach,” Siok says.

“We infuse a mixed bag of donor cells: some are good cells that help rebuild the immune system and fight rogue cancer cells. But others are harmful and can attack the patient’s tissues and organs, resulting in complications that are life-threatening and can have long-term effects on quality-of-life.”

Siok has developed ways to improve transplant outcomes through her laboratory and clinical research. The Metcalf Prize will help her develop blood cell transplantations that are more precisely targeted and therefore safer and more effective.

Read more about Siok and her research.

Making a virtual human cell to explore how we’re made and how we can regenerate damaged organs

 Dr Pengyi Yang plans to transform stem cell research.

“Today’s stem cell treatments have been the product of trial and error. My virtual stem cell will allow us to understand what’s happening inside a single stem cell that makes it decide what type of cell it will become, be it hair, skin, muscle, nerve, blood or other.”

He is mapping the many, complex influences that control stem cells and how they specialise into different cell types.

Pengyi is based at the Children's Medical Research Institute and at The University of Sydney. He aims to remove much of the guess work from stem cell science and eventually stem cell medicine.

In recognition of his leadership in the field, Pengyi has also received a Metcalf Prizes from the Foundation.

“Stem cells are amazing because they can produce any kind of cell in the body. They’re fundamental to regenerative medicine,” Pengyi says. “But, when their controls fail, rogue stem cells can lead to cancer.”

We all start life as a single stem cell. It goes on to produce cells that eventually become every type of tissue and organ of the human body. Even in adulthood, stem cells are repairing and replacing tissue all the time.

“People are excited about the potential of stem cell medicine, but the reality is extremely complicated. Thousands of genes, complex gene networks, environmental factors, and an individual’s own health are all involved in pushing stem cells to become specific cell types.”

Pengyi, a computer scientist turned stem cell researcher, is using computational science and statistics to understand how stem cells function at a fundamental level – work that will be useful for the entire stem cell field of research.

“We need a computer model to bring all of these influences together so we can identify the specific gene networks that drive the stem cells towards each cell type.”

“The stem cell treatments that are already being used have been the product of trial and error. I want to find out how they work, and what’s controlling them,” he explains.

Read more about Pengyi and his research.

The Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research are named for the late Professor Donald Metcalf, AC. 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.

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:

Cell Stem Cell: 'The American stem cell sell in 2021: US businesses selling unlicensed and unproven stem cell interventions. Article.

The Guardian: Documentary: ‘This is such an important moment’: how stem cell research is transforming medicine.

Baylor College of Medicine: It takes cellular teamwork to heal the intestine. Paper.

ABC News: Queensland researchers create functioning brain tissue in lab from blood of epilepsy patients to tailor treatments

Genetic engineering and biotechnology news: In embryonic stem cells, genes link pluripotency and ease of self-destruction. Paper.

Science Daily: Protein involved in heart development boosts stem cell strategy for heart repair, scientists show. Paper.

University of Johannesburg: Adult stem cells transform faster with two lasers. Paper.

Medical News Today: COVID-19 and 'stem cell' research: Does the hype match the reality? Paper

Peter Mac: Peter Mac and University of Melbourne research receives $16m boost from Snow Fellowships.

Forbes: Is this petri dish looking at me? Paper.

Research Centre for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences: Stem cell transplant: How skin-derived T cells can damage other organs.  Paper.


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