2015 Metcalf Prizes go to Brisbane and Perth researchers

Media releases, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

Teaching stem cells to forget the past – Ryan Lister, Perth

Stem cell encyclopedia leads to new discoveries – Christine Wells, Brisbane

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

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Scientists available for photos and interviews in their labs.

Professor Ryan Lister of the University of Western Australia and Associate Professor Christine Wells 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.

Ryan Lister has discovered how adult stem cells retain a memory of what they once were. He believes he can make them forget their past lives, as for example skin cells, so their history doesn’t limit their new potential to become brain, heart, liver, blood and other cells.

In 2009, Ryan constructed the first complete maps of the complex human epigenome—millions of small chemical signposts added to our DNA that can turn genes ‘on’ and ‘off’. TIME magazine named this the second most important discovery that year. Over the life of a cell this packaging accumulates chemical changes or ‘memories’ of the cell’s role.

Ryan then turned his attention to studying adult stem cells or ‘induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells’ made from, for example, adult skin cells. While iPS cells appear to have reverted back to embryonic childhood, Ryan found they carry some adult baggage with them, retaining chemical memories. These memories may result in unpredictable and undesirable cell growth, limiting medical potential of iPS cells.

“We want to create a tool that will allow us to understand, edit and correct any ‘memories’ that might result in cell behaviour that we want to avoid. Ultimately, this could lead to new stem cells derived from adult cells that can be safely used to treat patients, for example, new cardiac cells to heal damaged heart tissues.”

Ryan is a Professor and Sylvia and Charles Viertel Senior Medical Research Fellow / ARC Future Fellow at the University of Western Australia, where he leads research groups at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.

An online encyclopedia created by Christine Wells has led to the discovery of a new kind of stem cell. And that’s just the beginning. Christine’s small Brisbane team has created a resource that the global stem cell research community is using to rapidly share knowledge and fast track stem cell discoveries.

“The stem cell field is growing so fast, it can be hard for researchers to keep abreast of the know-how and data that’s accumulating outside their particular special interest,” says Christine. “I’m working to address that need.”

Christine leads the Stemformatics initiative—an online encyclopedia of detailed scientific information on how our thousands of different genes shape us—putting vital data at the fingertips of stem cell researchers and their cross-disciplinary collaborators.

Christine and her encyclopedia helped a global team of 50 scientists from four countries, led by Canadian Andras Nagy, to access, share and integrate an enormous amount of data. This enabled the discovery of a whole new class of ‘pluripotent’ stem cell—cells that can give rise to any type of cell—and only the second type that can be grown in the lab from adult tissues.

Christine is a Group Leader at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland, Reader in Innate Genomics at the University of Glasgow and Director of the Stemformatics program for Stem Cells Australia.

“We’re excited by the knowledge that supporting Christine Wells’ work will also support the research of the wider stem cell community and that Ryan Lister’s research will help towards a goal of providing safe and reliable stem cell therapies,” says Dr Graeme Blackman, OAM, the Chairman of the Foundation.

“Once again, we’ve been stunned by the quality of the applications. Christine and Ryan stood out from a remarkable field of young research leaders.”

The awards are named for the late Professor Donald Metcalf, AC, who died in December 2014. 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.

Event Thursday 14 May in Brisbane: Christine Wells will be part of a panel of internationally recognised stem cell research leaders at a special public forum ‘Translating stem cell research into real health and economic benefits’, moderated by ABC Radio National’s Norman Swan.

Details: http://www.alumni.uq.edu.au/gls-stem-cell

Contact details

Niall Byrne, Science in Public, 0417 131 977, niall@scienceinpublic.com.au

Tanya Ha, Science in Public, 0404 083 863, tanya@scienceinpublic.com.au

Julia Mason, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia, 0414 659 901, jmason@stemcellfoundation.net.au

Ryan Lister, University of Western Australia, 0448 375 394, ryan.lister@uwa.edu.au

Margaret Puls (media contact for Christine Wells), University of Queensland, 0419 578 356, m.puls@uq.edu.au

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, jmason@stemcellfoundation.net.au

More at www.stemcellfoundation.net.au