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Winners of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia’s Metcalf Prizes announced

November 14, 2017

Professor Mark Dawson of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Associate Professor Jessica Mar of the University of Queensland have both received $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia in recognition of their leadership in stem cell research. 

Mark Dawson has helped build a new drug to fight an aggressive form of blood cancer. He discovered the basic science of gene expression in acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), helped develop a drug to block that action, and is leading an international clinical trial to test it.

Mark first explored how genes function in leukaemia, then identified molecules that interrupt the key genetic instructions that perpetuate cancer cells. The drug subsequently developed to treat AML is now the subject of more than 50 clinical trials around the world.

“Each year, more than 1,000 Australians are diagnosed with AML, and more than 70 per cent of these people will die within five years,” says Mark.

“By studying the differences and commonalities between healthy blood stem cells and leukaemia stem cells, I hope to help develop less toxic, more targeted drug treatments that will see more of my patients live longer and healthier lives.”

Professor Mark Dawson is a clinician-scientist at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. He is the program head of the Translational Haematology Program, Group leader of the Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory and Consultant Haematologist in the Department of Haematology.

Jessica Mar is analysing stem cells to discover the changes that influence ageing.

We all started life as a stem cell. Throughout our lives, stem cells repair and replace our tissues, but as we age they stop working as well. Understanding how this decline occurs is fundamental to understanding—and influencing—how we age.

Jessica is studying ageing stem cell models with collaborators around Australia to answer these questions. She is also collaborating on longevity research internationally, and will work with two study populations, ‘super-centenarians’ in Japan who live to 110 years or more, and a group of Ashkenazi Jews who are aged 95 years and older.

“There are two schools of thought,” she says. “Some researchers believe that errors creep into the translation of our genes into proteins causing genetic noise and disease. Others are adamant that the noise decreases and that the stem cells become less able to adapt to circumstance. My research has shown that it’s actually a bit of both.”

In 2011, Jessica demonstrated for the first time that both can be true. Working with Australian of the Year Alan Mackay-Sim and his collection of nasal stem cells from patients, she showed increased genetic noise is linked with Parkinson’s disease. Then she showed the opposite in schizophrenia.

Jessica will use her Metcalf Prize to expand her research and introduce the next generation of stem cell researchers to the power of ‘centenarian studies’. It’s all based on big data, and powerful computer analysis of the genomes of millions of individual cells from hundreds of people.

Associate Professor Jessica Mar is a Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland.

The awards 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.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel AO will present the 2017 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research at a special event in Melbourne on Friday 24 November 2017.

Contact details:

Niall Byrne, Science in Public, 0417 131 977, [email protected]

Tanya Ha, Science in Public, 0404 083 863, [email protected]

Julia Mason, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia, 0414 659 901, [email protected]

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.

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