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The National Stem cell Foundation of Australia is a philanthropic foundation supporting stem cell research and its potential applications in the treatment of illnesses for which current treatments are unsatisfactory. We do not treat patients, do not have any direct affiliation with treatment centres, and cannot give personal medical advice or recommendations.

Although there have been major advances in the study of stem cell biology, and in our understanding of how stem cells can be manipulated to produce different cell types for potential treatment applications, at present most stem cell treatment remains experimental, with benefits and safety still to be clearly established.

Yes, and in fact it was Australian stem cell scientiss who were successful in the use of blood forming stems in bone marrow transplantation, which has saved many lives over the past 50 years. This treatment is known as a bone marrow transplant, and you may heard of procedure being used to treatment some forms of leaukaemia.
Besides bone marrow transplants, stem cells found in the skin and cornea of the eye have also been used successfully in skin grafts and corneal grafts. In all these instances the stem cells are already committed to producing the cells of the tissues which is damaged – ie they are doing the repair job that they are already programmed to perform.

The Canadian Stem Cell Network website has good information relating to disease specific progress in stem cell treatment research, as does the European Stem Cell website where you can search for progress in a specific disease area:

Your treating specialist is the person who will be most up to date on the standard treatments available for your condition and on the progress of exciting new therapies. They will also be able to assist in assessing the suitability of a clinical trial that you may be interested in, and in assessing your eligibility to participate. We strongly advise you to visit your GP and not seek medical advice from the internet.

The Australian and New Zealand Clinical Trials registry at lists current trials open within Australia and NZ. The US trials register at lists studies that are taking place in the US and many other countries. Eligibility criteria and contact details for the Study coordinator are listed for each study.

Many registered studies are well designed trials, approved by ethics committees, registered with the NIH and carried out in academic institutions, without charge to the patient. Unfortunately the US site now also lists ‘trials’ carried out by private clinics that may not meet appropriate scientific or ethical standards. There are unfortunately now many 'Treatment Centres' and ‘Regenerative Medicine Clinics’ around the world, including in Australia, that advertise unproven and unregulated stem cell treatment (usually using autologous patient cells obtained by liposuction, see below) for a large number of diseases. Sadly these trials are carried out without evidence of safety or efficacy of this treatment. and usually at significant cost to the patient (not reimbursable by Medicare).

The ‘Australian Stem Cell Handbook’ available free on our website, has a chapter on ‘Unproven Therapies’ and lists some of the questions you should ask in trying to establish the credentials of any centre from which you might consider seeking treatment. The booklet also provides further information on stem cells and how they may ultimately be used. You may find stem cell treatment centres outside Australia advertised on the internet. It is common for such centres to also promote unsafe stem cell treatments. Information about “stem cell tourism” can be found in the Foundation’s handbook, as well as from
The European Stem Cell website at has good information relating to disease-specific progress in stem cell treatment research. Your treating specialist is the person who will be most up to date on the standard treatments available for your condition and on the progress of exciting new therapies. They will also be able to assist in assessing the suitability of a clinical trial that you may be interested in, and in assessing your eligibility to participate

Human embryo research and the use of human eggs for research and training in assisted reproductive techniques (ART), is tightly regulated in Australia, requiring licensing of the researchers by the National Health and Medical Research Council (the NHMRC) for each research project.
The members of the Science and Ethics Committee of the NSCFA are not experts in this complex legal/ethical field. We did however seek advice from a senior consultant in the field and the reply received is copied below, explaining why altruistic donation of eggs or embryos for research may not always be possible – there are many ART clinics but not all will be associated with embryo research projects (and much research involving donated eggs would involve creation of embryos, so falls under these provisions).

In Australia, human embryo research is licensed and regulated by the NHMRC and their website has an Embryo Research Licensing section that lists current and past licensed projects. Essentially, all of the projects are carried out either within an ART unit or at least with their involvement so the licence holders will be the ART clinics.

There is tight control of the numbers of embryos that can be used in each project so, in general terms, there is no shortage of donated embryos for the projects i.e. clinics will be able to complete their projects using embryos donated from their own patients. This is why there has been really no need to transfer embryos between clinics. In fact, in many cases, patients within embryo research licensed clinics who wish to have their embryos used for research are told that it may not be possible to guarantee their inclusion in the research.

If you have attended a specialist within a Assisted Reproduction Clinic then this would be the most appropriate person with whom to discuss this further.

Australia is well served with 3 public Cord Blood Banks (CBB), one each in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, collecting from 11 different maternity hospitals. These banks have been in operation for the last 20 years and are licensed by the Australian Regulatory agency, the TGA as well as being internationally accredited by a body setting international Standards for cord blood banking and release, called FACT (the Foundation for Accreditation of Cellular Therapies). In addition to these banks, a further public bank is in development in Perth. Read more about Public Cord Blood Banking here.

There is no charge for the collection or storage of CB in the Public Banks but there are strict eligibility criteria and collection can only occur in one of the licensed obstetric units associated with the Banks, and if baby’s delivery occurs during the times that the collection staff are on duty.

This CB is not stored specifically for use by a member of your family. Cord bloods from Public Banks are made available for patients with suitable matching, in Australia and internationally, who need a marrow transplant but do not have a suitably matched family or adult unrelated donor. To date over a thousand cord blood units have been released to patients in need, from the Auscord Banks.

For further information about altruistic cord blood donation and the hospitals at which CB collection is possible, the Banks may be contacted as follows:

BMDI CBB located at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne: 039345 5834
Brisbane CBB at the Mater Hospital: 0731631614
Sydney CBB at the Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick: 0293820371

In addition to the public banks there is a private cord blood banks in Australia: CellCare. They arrange collection of an infant’s CB at the obstetric hospital, process and store the CB for potential use by the infant donor, or another close family member, at some time in the future. There are costs associated with private CB collection and private banking. Contact details information about the services provided and the schedule of charges, may be found on the CellCare’s website.

After more than twenty years of research into stem cells, advancing our understanding how stem cells function and can be manipulated, scientists have opened a wide range of opportunities to diagnose and treat illnesses and tissue injuries that, up to now, have resisted treatment. Severe injuries to the spinal cord and Parkinson's disease in the brain are two that have received a lot of public attention. And the use of stem cells and their derivatives to carry or be therapeutic agents for treating serious diseases like cancer is growing exponentially. The Foundation aims to accelerate the rate of development of effective treatments based on this research.

Our web site contains up to date information about stem cell science and links to major sites in our field.

Both the European Stem Cell Foundation and the International Society for Stem Cell Research's A Closer Look at Stem Cells websites contain good information relating to progress in stem cell research and clinical application.

All three sites include sections on the ethical issues relating to stem cell research and the dangerous illnesses that are likely to respond to treatments based on stem cell science.

In surveys of public opinion, more than 80% of Australians support research into stem cells so the word "controversial" is not really accurate. Originally, controversy arose around the use of embryonic stem cells. Hardly any research in Australia now involves such cells. Most of it is on adult stem cells or their derivatives, such as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). When you go to the relevant web sites, you will be able to find these things out for yourself.

The pressing ethical issue currently is the growth of private commercial clinics claiming to provide stem cell treatments for a wide range of diseases. Their treatments are largely untested in proper clinical trials, very expensive, and the companies prey on the fears of people desperate for help for their illnesses or those of relatives or friends. One might argue that there ought to be more controversy about this.

‘Therapeutic cloning’ refers to the formation of embryonic stem cells by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT). In this process, the nucleus of an animal/human gamete (egg) is replaced with one from a mature cell (e.g. a skin cell) from another animal/individual, leading to the formation of a pluripotent cell with the genetic characteristics of the donor of the nuclear material. This pluripotent cell has the ability to divide and form an embryo. Although it is theoretically possible for an embryo formed through SCNT to develop into a ‘clone’ of the nuclear donor this could only occur if the embryo were to be implanted into a uterus. This is strictly prohibited in Australia, Europe and the USA and has never occurred. It is important to note also that SCNT is an extremely difficult process with a low success rate. The use of pluripotent cells derived from embryos formed by SCNT has very largely been superseded by the discovery in 2006 that it was possible to reprogram ‘adult’ somatic cells to revert to a pluripotent embryonic like cell – these cells are termed induced pluripotent cells and show great promise for future therapeutic and research applications without the ethical concerns raised by the use of embryonic stem cells whether derived from ’excess’ fertilised embryos created by IVF for fertility treatment, or by SCNT.

The ethical considerations around the use of embryonic SC in research and treatment of disease as well as further information about the different types of stem cells, are well laid out in several FACT sheets to be found on the this link to the European Stem Cell Foundation. Secondary teachers and students may also find information on ethical issues in this subject sequence for VCE Biology here.

As stem cells can be induced to grow into new tissues, they have great potential to treat illnesses where tissue has been completely lost, for instance after injury to the spinal cord or nerves, death of heart muscle from a heart attack, liver failure from destruction of cells by viruses or toxins or destruction of functioning lung tissue by disease. Formal clinical trials of adult stem cells are in progress in several countries to assess whether such treatments are effective and safe.

The ability to “manufacture” stem cells from adult donors and patients themselves (see section above on iPSC) has reduced the need to use embryonic stem cells, and opened up a wide range of new possibilities in immunological treatments for cancer, production of vaccines and new therapeutic proteins and diagnostic tests.

In addition, stem cells and the tissues derived from them are an increasingly useful tool for researchers, providing living cells and tissues for understanding diseases and testing new treatments.

Current Stem Cell Treatments

Stem cell therapy using tissue stem cells has been in routine use since the 1970s! The most well-established and widely used stem cell treatment is the transplantation of blood stem cells to treat diseases and conditions of the blood and immune system, or to restore the blood system after treatments for specific cancers, for example, leukaemia. Bone marrow transplants are able to replace a patient’s diseased blood system for life, thanks to the properties of blood stem cells.

The late Professor Donald Metcalf, AC, who transformed cancer treatment and transplantation medicine paved the way for stem cell therapy in the treatment of leukaemia and many other conditions. Don Metcalf’s research on blood cell formation led directly to the development of bone marrow transplantation. This treatment is used worldwide every day, and has saved many thousands of lives. Each year the NSCFA celebrates Professor Metcalf’s achievement with The annual Metcalf Prize. This prize of $50,000 is awarded to the brightest mid-career female and male Australian stem cell researcher.

Stem cells are seen as a key tool in the future of medicine, for their abilities to regenerate damaged tissue, replace missing tissue and repair the effects of disease or injury. Experimental stem cell therapy is being developed for many common diseases, including blindness, stroke, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and heart attacks.

Important research is being undertaken by reputable hospital, biotechnology and university groups in Australia and around the world. However, it is still early days, and some private non-academic organisations and individual practitioners are offering stem cell treatments that have not been shown to be effective and have not been proven to be safe. If you’d like to help Australian researchers progress stem cell treatments, donate to the NSCFA because that’s exactly the work we support.

Currently, the range of diseases for which there are proven treatments using stem cells is quite small and the only established stem cell therapies are those of the blood system involving transplants of blood stem cells (usually from bone marrow but with cord blood also being developed as an alternative).

We recognise that patients and families who are facing severe illness or injury may consider trying untested treatments, especially when there seem to be few other options. People in this situation may be at risk of harm, through lack of information or misinformation provided by less reputable practitioners who are not recognised specialists or experts in the diseases they are proposing to treat.

We recommend that you are very cautious before you agree to try an untested treatment, particularly if it costs a lot of money. Your regular hospital doctors, specialists, and your general practitioner, should be able to offer accurate advice on which treatments have been proven to work, and which are unproven, unlikely to help, and may even cause harm. If it sounds to be too good to be true, be wary. The best protection for patients and families in this situation is to be fully informed.

Fortunately several highly respected resources are available via the internet to help you.

Several booklets can be downloaded to be read later or printed. If you cannot download a document or do not have access to a printer please send us an email: [email protected]. Please note we do not provide advice on stem cell treatments, clinics, or any medical advice whatsoever.

  • The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia and Stem Cells Australia have produced a brochure to help you: The Australian Stem Cell Handbook. The Handbook aims to help patients critically analyse stem cell treatments before considering taking part in them. As with all medical treatments, there are risks involved. This Handbook does not seek to advise or evaluate the treatments, or an individual’s reasons for travelling for treatment. Instead it aims to provide the patient with as much information as possible prior to considering any therapy. This Handbook summarises the pros and cons of medical travel, potential risks and benefits, and helps patients evaluate their options when considering travelling overseas for unproven treatments.
  • The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has prepared a Patient Handbook on Stem Cell Therapies that addresses frequently asked questions about clinical therapies using stem cells.
  • Access this international website on stem cells, research, and how stem cells become medicine. The website is aimed at the non-medical general public:
  • Check the section on the ISSCR website for their checklist of What to Ask when talking to someone promoting a stem cell treatment of any type.

Australia is home to many leading stem cell scientists and research institutes. These frequently hold seminars to discuss recent stem cell discoveries, research in Australia, and the promotion of non-medically proven stem cells treatments via the internet and social media. Below is a list of resources from Australia and international sources.

Educational resources