2018 Metcalf Prizes – Media release

Media releases, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

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

Why do some cancer cells get away? – Heather Lee, Newcastle

Newborn babies offer clues for healing hearts – Enzo Porrello, Melbourne

Scientists available for interviews

Dr Heather Lee is analysing individual cancer cells to understand how some survive therapy. Her research ultimately aims to prevent relapse and lift survival rates for leukaemia.

Associate Professor Enzo Porrello is exploring newborn heart development to develop heart attack drugs and engineer ‘artificial pumps’ from patient stem cells.

Heather Lee of the University of Newcastle and Enzo Porrello of the University of Melbourne have both received $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia in recognition of their early-career leadership in stem cell research.

Heather invented a way to study the genetics of individual cells more closely that will help her find out why some cancer cells are treatable, and others go rogue. With her new technique, she can see the chemical ‘flags’ that tell the cell how to interpret its genetic code. At the same time, she can watch how those instructions are—or aren’t—carried out.

Heather and other scientists use the technique to study what makes rogue cancer cells different at a genetic level.

Heather is now studying cells from patients with acute myeloid leukaemia to see how just a few cells can resist treatment and go on to cause a fatal relapse. She hopes this will lead to new, more effective drug treatments for this devastating disease.

Dr Heather Lee is a Cancer Institute NSW Fellow at Hunter Medical Research Institute and the University of Newcastle.

For a few short days after birth, the heart can regenerate damaged tissue. Enzo wants to understand why this ability turns off, so that he and colleagues can switch it back on to heal broken hearts. 

Understanding regeneration could lead to new treatments for different types of heart disease, the world’s biggest killer, from birth defects to heart attacks late in life.

“I recently showed that the hearts of newborn mice can regenerate after a heart attack,” Enzo says. “But this self-healing ability rapidly diminishes in the days after birth.”

Enzo thinks there is a similar capacity in humans. He is using stem cells to recreate the development of the heart in the lab to study the processes and the genes involved in turning self-healing on and off.

He wants to develop drugs that can stimulate heart muscle cells to rebuild after a heart attack.

He is also part of a new consortium that aims to engineer new working heart tissue to treat children with heart disease, made from their own stem cells.

Associate Professor Enzo Porrello is Group Leader of Cardiac Regeneration at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

“We hope that supporting Heather Lee’s work will help her share a valuable new technique for cancer researchers, and that Enzo Porrello’s work will help us tackle Australia’s biggest killer,” says Dr Graeme Blackman, AO, the chairman of the Foundation.

“Once again, we’ve been stunned by the quality of the applications. Heather and Enzo stood out from a very competitive field of young research leaders.”

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.

Professor Richard Larkins AO will formally present the 2018 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research at a special event in Melbourne on Friday 30 November 2018.

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, AO, FTSE, FAICD.

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

Photos of the winners

2018 Metcalf Prize winner Dr Heather Lee (Photo credit: University of Newcastle)

2018 Metcalf Prize winner Dr Heather Lee (Photo credit: University of Newcastle)

Heather Lee at work (Photo credit: Hunter Medical Research Institute)

Heather Lee at work (Photo credit: Hunter Medical Research Institute)

2018 Metcalf Prize winner Associate Professor Enzo Porrello from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the University of Melbourne. Enzo is also an Honorary Associate Professor with the University of Queensland (Photo credit: University of Queensland)

Enzo Porrello (Photo credit: University of Melbourne)

2018 Metcalf Prize winning heart development researcher Enzo Porrello