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November 2023

Tackling osteoarthritis and stomach cancer: Metcalf Prize winners announced

I am delighted to announce the winners of the 2023 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research: Dr Jiao Jiao Li from the University of Technology Sydney and Dr Dustin Flanagan from the Monash Biomedical Discovery Institute.

Jiao Jiao is a bioengineer who plans to use stem cells as biofactories to make drugs to reduce inflammation and encourage repair in painful osteoarthritic joints.

Dustin is working to understand why some stomach stem cells turn cancerous and whether we can develop drugs to bring these misbehaving cells back to normal, healthy function.

Both will receive a $60,000 prize from the Foundation. Read more below.

Join us next week for a free public lecture and Q&A on Stem Cells and Organoids at the Maritime Museum in Sydney on Tuesday 14 November 5.30pm-7pm and livestreamed.

Find out how clusters of light-sensing eye cells grown in a petri dish are crucial in developing gene therapies for inherited blindness. Known as organoids, clusters of cells like these are also being used to test new or improved treatments for heart and muscle conditions, brain disorders, and some types of cancer.

Come early to see a stem cell photography exhibition or speak with roving scientists. Register here.

I’d like to extend warm congratulations to one of our directors Professor Megan Munsie, who received ‘Highly Commended’ recognition for her advocacy work at last week’s 2023 Research Australia Awards.

And in stem cells news from around the world: a lab has 3D printed a neural network of living brain cells, scientist have discovered a way cell communication can lead to cancer, legal and ethics experts are looking at the role of AI in advancing stem cell therapy, and more in our regular round-up of news from around the world.

Kind regards,

Dr Graeme L Blackman AO

Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

In this bulletin:

Can stem cells make drugs to stop osteoarthritis?

Dr Jiao Jiao Li plans to use stem cells as biofactories to make drugs to reduce inflammation and encourage repair in painful osteoarthritic joints.

Osteoarthritis is a hugely debilitating joint disease with few treatment options.  Injecting stem cells to repair damaged joints has shown inconsistent and poor long-term results and the potential for adverse side effects.

“I believe it would be safer and more effective to use stem cells to create healing biomolecules and inject those instead,” says Jiao Jiao, a bioengineer at University of Technology Sydney.

Jiao Jiao works across disciplines, using artificial intelligence, bioengineering, nanotechnology and stem cell science to develop new stem cell-derived treatments – initially for osteoarthritis but potentially for a wide range of other diseases.

She has a track record in bone repair, having developed a ceramic-based scaffold that becomes populated by the patient’s own stem cells to regrow sections of bone.

“One of the great things about stem cells is that they secrete nanosized membrane-bound packets of bioactive molecules that can be used as therapeutics,” says Jiao Jiao.

Injections of these beneficial biomolecules would avoid the potential pitfalls of injecting living stem cells directly into diseased joints.

Read more about Jiao Jiao and her research.

Stomach stem cells behaving badly

People diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer have a less than 10 per cent chance of surviving more than 5 years.

Dr Dustin Flanagan wants to boost that survival rate by understanding why some deviant stomach stem cells turn cancerous. This knowledge will help in the development of drugs to bring these misbehaving cells back to normal, healthy function.

Dustin’s past research has led to the development of treatments for Crohn’s disease, bowel cancer, and other gastrointestinal conditions.

He’s now at Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute turning his attention to stomach cancer, which is less common than bowel cancer but just as lethal.

“Our goal is to make discoveries that have the potential to generate new therapies for therapy-resistant metastatic gastric cancer,” he says.

Read more about Dustin 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.

Can lab-grown eye tissue test gene therapies for blindness?

Could models of muscle help us understanding heart problems?

Free public lecture with Q&A in Sydney and livestreamed

Organoids event

5.30pm-7pm Tuesday 14 November, Australian National Maritime Museum.

  • Australian researchers are growing thousands of beating heart tissue clusters in the lab. They’re used to find drug treatment for heart attack patients.
  • In Sydney, eye tissue grown from patient stem cells is helping in the development of treatments for inherited eye diseases.
  • Melbourne scientists developed a neural system combining 800,000 living brain cells, which was able to demonstrate intelligence-like behaviour by learning to play Pong!

Researchers call these models of organs made from stem cells ‘organoids’. They are paving the way for new or more targeted treatments for inherited eye diseases, brain disorders, certain types of cancer, and more.

Organoids, such as heart or kidney organoids, can be made from healthy stem cells and are used to study normal organ development or to test drugs in living, functional tissues.

‘Disease in a dish’ organoids recreate a condition in the lab. They are either grown from stem cells derived from patient biopsies or from stem cells engineered to have a specific gene defect. They’re shedding light on poorly understood diseases and helping to find and test new treatments.

Join us at Stem Cells and Organoids - a free public event in Sydney, which will be livestreamed.

You’ll hear from a panel of researchers and clinicians sharing their expertise on:

  • lab-grown tumours for testing cancer treatments: Professor Helen Abud, Monash University
  • blindness and deafness: Dr Anai Gonzalez Cordero, Children’s Medical Research Institute, Sydney.
  • heart and muscle conditions: Dr Richard Mills, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, reNEW Melbourne.
  • brain conditions: Associate Professor Silvia Velasco, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, reNEW Melbourne.
  • ethical and legal implications of emerging technologies: Professor Di Nicol, University of Tasmania.

This forum will be hosted by Foundation director and a leader in the societal implications of stem cell science and its clinical translation Professor Megan Munsie, from University of Melbourne, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and reNEW Melbourne.

When: Tuesday 14 November 2023, 5:30 - 7pm AEDT

Where: Australian National Maritime Museum, 2 Murray Street Sydney, NSW 2000.

Pre-event exhibition and science education opportunity

Doors open at 4:30pm with a stem cell photography exhibition and roving early career scientists in the foyer. Meet and mingle with junior investigators and find out about university courses and careers in science and biomedical research.

This event is hosted by the Australasian Society of Stem Cell Research and supported by the Foundation as part of our mission to provide community education. It is also proudly supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Medicine, reNEW.

Register here:


Stem cell news from around the world

Between newsletters, we share stem cell news on social media:

Here are some stories we’ve shared recently:

Herald Sun: Hudson Institute researchers look to brain stem cells for cerebral palsy answer (subscriber only).

The Canberra Times: Australian-first stem cell trial tackles rare genetic condition.

Australian Manufacturing: Victorian research institute takes lead in nation-first stem cell therapy trial.

Science Alert: Scientists discover new ‘unique mode’ of communication that can turn cells cancerous.

UNSW Newsroom: Mimics human tissue, fights bacteria: new biomaterial hits the sweet spot.

The National Law Review: Safeguarding AI innovation in stem cell therapy.

BBC News: Scientists: Allow forbidden 28-day embryo experiments.

Nature (opinion): Why researchers should use human embryo models with caution.

Wired: A lab just 3D-printed a neural network of living brain cells.

NPR: Brain cells, interrupted: How some genes may cause autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia.

SciTechDaily: Stem cells from discarded heart tissue could treat Crohn’s disease.

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