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September 2021

Meet the clinician-scientist mending broken hearts

It is always exciting to see researchers who we have backed in early careers progress, and their work blossom thanks to the generosity of our donors.

In this bulletin, we catch up with Sydney clinician and researcher James Chong, who is developing stem cell therapies to repair damaged heart tissue.

Support from our donors has helped James get his work to the point where he just won a $4.9 million grant from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).

You can hear James speak about heart health and his research, and send in your own questions, through a webinar this month. Read on for more information.

We’re backing four more scientists working on treatments for cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and other diseases. Read on for more information and how you can join the effort to bring these treatments to clinical trials.

Later this year, we will publish a new patient information book for people considering stem cell therapies.

And early next year, we will help a group of students and early career researchers to attend Australia’s premier stem cell science conference – an investment in the next generation of medical scientists.

These are just some examples of how donations are making a difference.

In other news,

  • in Germany, mini brains grown in a lab have spontaneously developed rudimentary eye structures,
  • beating heart cells have been grown from stem cells in an experiment at the International Space Station,
  • stem cell science continues to make a contribution to COVID-19 research.

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:

Meet the stem cell scientist mending broken hearts

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for all Australians. Every year more than 57,000 Australians suffer a heart attack. Many develop heart failure.

Westmead Institute of Medical Research/University of Sydney scientist Associate Professor James Chong is pioneering the use of stem cells to repair heart damage. But further work is required before human clinical trials can safely commence.

With your help, we want to pump a further $100,000 into his heart research at the Westmead Institute of Medical Research through their ‘Double the Love’ campaign.

Donate now or any time through September until World Heart Day on 29 September, and we will match your donation dollar-for-dollar to double the impact.

Register to attend James’ webinar and send in your own questions via this link:

James is sharing his research and heart health insights through a special online event on Wednesday 22 September at 1pm AEST. 

James’ approach to heart repair is to inject stem cell-derived heart muscle cells or ‘cardiomyocytes’ directly into the injured region.

It has the potential to save the lives of millions of people as a viable alternative to heart transplants.

Compounding this, COVID-19 is being shown to impact heart health and the long-term consequences are unknown.

Watch a video about James’ research.


Early support leads to government funding success

We saw the promise of James’ work early. Following animal trials that featured in a landmark Nature paper, he received one of two $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia in 2016.

That helped him go on to prove that stem cells could repair the damaged hearts in other clinically relevant large animal models.

From there, James moved on to a five-year project aiming to bring to bring the therapy to a clinical trial with patients who have had heart attacks.

The Foundation swung behind him again with a Matched Funding initiative, under which we matched, dollar for dollar, every public donation of $500 or more.

Then this year, James was awarded $4.9 million by the Medical Research Future Fund 2020 Stem Cell Mission for his work which will allow clinical trials to go ahead.

James says the Matched Funding support was vital help in him winning the MRFF funding.

“It was really instrumental in helping me with this recent MRFF success,” he says.

“It allowed us to carry out the pre-clinical large animal work. Part of that was cell manufacture with my co-investigator in Queensland, Professor Peter Gray. And the large animal experiments have been instrumental in the preliminary data that I put into the MRFF grant application.”

James also has some other exciting news. The large animal large animal studies, while successful in repairing heart tissue, did in some cases cause an arrhythmia – a condition where the heart beats abnormally. Now he thinks he and his colleagues may have found a solution.

Being on the verge of publishing a paper on the subject, he can’t give too many details but says large animal studies have shown that the arrhythmia can be suppressed with a combination of two drugs, and that are already available in clinical use.

“So, it doesn't get rid of it totally, but suppresses it quite significantly, so that it becomes less sinister, less aggressive.”

Targeting new treatments for cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and other genetic diseases

Your chance to support research into therapies for inherited diseases

Each year, the Foundation selects up to four promising Australian stem cell research projects that need a funding boost to help them progress new therapies to human clinical trials.

As part of our Matched Funding Program, the Foundation will match money it receives from approved donors up to a maximum of $50,000, potentially providing a total of $100,000 for each project.

We are delighted to announce the 2021 Matched Funding Program recipients:

  • Dr Peter Houweling from Murdoch Children's Research Institute is developing a treatment for a type of muscular dystrophy, a group of genetic diseases that cause progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass.
  • Dr Gerard Kaiko from Hunter Medical Research Institute and the University of Newcastle is working on personalised gene therapy for the treatment of cystic fibrosis, an inherited condition that causes severe damage to the lungs, digestive system and other organs.
  • Dr Raymond Wong from the Centre for Eye Research Australia and The University of Melbourne is developing a gene therapy for late-stage retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited retinal disease that causes progressive loss of vision.
  • Dr Sarah Withey from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland is using mini liver ‘organoids’ made from stem cells to test a treatment for children with a rare, genetic, progressive, life-limiting disease Ataxia Telangiectasia (A-T).

We will share more information about each project in future newsletters. In the meantime, we need donations to help us cover our half of the grants given to recipients.

Please consider assisting us in our work to support this important and growing area of medical science. The Foundation is registered as a Health Promotion Charity with the Australian Tax Office, so donations are tax deductible.

If you would like to make a donation or are considering making a bequest, please visit our website:

The 2022 funding round will open for applications early next year. For more information visit:

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:

The Science Show: Science and the public good

News-Medical.Net: Researchers convert human stem cells into beta cells using small molecules

Medical Xpress: How stem cells alleviate COPD inflammation in humans. Paper.

ABC Big Ideas: Vaccines, stem cells, and the myth of wellness

Science Alert: Scientists grew stem cell ‘mini brains’. Then, the brains sort-of developed eyes. Paper.

Reuters: Australian researchers develop hydrogel to combat Parkinson's

Technology Networks: New CRISPR technique corrects cystic fibrosis in human stem cells. Paper.

Houston Chronicle: Stemming the tide of stem-cell treatment scams

Sydney Morning Herald: Will genetic engineering lead to designer babies and supersoldiers?

Healio: Cardiac cells can be grown in space

ABC Science Friction: Why scientists want longstanding ‘14-day rule’ for human embryo research changed

AusBioTech: New international guidelines for stem cell research

EurekAlert: COVID-19 studies are bolstered by lung cells made from induced pluripotent stem cells

About the Foundation

The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia is an ATO-registered tax-deductible Health Promotion Charity dedicated to promoting the study and responsible use of stem cells to reduce the burden of disease.

The Foundation’s activities include:

  • supporting research that pursues cures for as-yet-untreatable diseases
  • building a community of people with a shared interest in stem cell science
  • providing the Australian public with objective, reliable information on both the potential and risks of stem cell medicine.

We are working to build a community of people with a stake in stem cell science and to promote collaboration between scientists locally and internationally.

Please feel free to contact the Foundation’s General Manager Graeme Mehegan via [email protected].

Spread the word

Help us grow

We're keen to build a community of people with a stake in stem cell science to educate the community and support patients, clinicians and researchers. Feel free to pass this newsletter on to anyone who might be interested.

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If you have comments, questions or news you think might be of interest to the stem cell community, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at [email protected].

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