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Stem cells healing broken hearts; Making cancer treatment less aggressive, more effective

July 22, 2016

On 2nd May last year 39-year old business banking consultant Clarrie Chang suffered a massive heart attack. Clarrie was lucky to survive, but some of his heart muscle is dead and will never recover… unless we can develop stem cell treatments to regenerate heart muscle.

The heart specialist who performed the surgery was James Chong, a cardiologist and researcher at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research in Sydney.

James has two starters in the race to develop stem cell therapies for heart failure, to repair damage and provide alternatives to heart transplants. His research is exploring both the potential for transplanted stem cells to regenerate new heart tissue and how to repair a patient’s heart by rejuvenating their own heart stem cells.

“In Australia, 54,000 people suffer a heart attack and 20,000 die from chronic heart failure each year,” says James.

Heart attacks and chronic heart failure damage and kill heart muscle. For the people who don’t die, their hearts are permanently weakened, some to the extent of needing a heart transplant to survive.

“I want to develop stem cell treatments that can save the lives of the thousands of people who miss out on heart transplants.”

James has already shown that human stem cells can produce new beating heart muscle cells, repairing heart damage in an animal trial. But the test group developed abnormal heart rhythms.

He believes modifying the stem cells using gene therapy can overcome the heart rhythm irregularities and wants to test the approach in a further animal trial to pave the way for human trials.

James has also discovered a population of stem cells that naturally reside in the heart, but decline with ageing and disease. He is developing ways to reawaken these stem cells to repair the damaged heart.

James will use his Metcalf Prize to help advance his work on both fronts towards human trials.

Tracy Heng from Monash University in Melbourne wants to make cancer treatment gentler and more effective for elderly patients with blood cancer and other blood disorders.

“Bone marrow transplants have transformed survival rates for blood cancers. They replace a diseased blood system with healthy blood-forming cells, but first, doctors have to wipe out a patient’s immune system, which takes a big toll on elderly patients. My goal is to change that,” says Tracy.

Tracy’s research aims to make the treatment less harsh by lowering the dose of chemotherapy or radiotherapy used to reset a patient’s immune system before a blood stem cell transplant.

To make this possible, she’s working to stop donor blood stem cells from being rejected by a patient’s body following a bone marrow transplant, by mixing them with other stem cells that can suppress the immune system.

The Prizes are named for the late Professor Donald Metcalf, AC, who transformed cancer treatment and transplantation medicine, and paved the way for stem cell therapy in the treatment of many other conditions.

“James Chong and Tracy Heng have both received $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia in recognition of their leadership in stem cell research, translating and applying stem cell science to medical practice,” says Dr Graeme Blackman OAM, Chairman of the Foundation.

 “Don Metcalf’s research on blood cell formation led directly to the development of bone marrow transplantation,” says Dr Graeme Blackman OAM, Chairman of the Foundation.

“Tracy’s work builds on these foundations to make a huge difference to the lives of elderly patients with blood diseases.”

Professor Peter Doherty will present the 2016 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research at a special event in Melbourne on Wednesday 27 July 2016.

Contact details

About the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

The NSCFA 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.

The Foundation is led by an expert volunteer Board, with a diversity of scientific, medical and governance experience. The Chairman is Dr Graeme Blackman, OAM, FTSE.

The Board consults with leading stem cell scientists before committing funds to research and education initiatives.

Contact: Julia Mason, 0414 659 901, [email protected]

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