2021 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research

More ‘good cells’, safer treatments for leukaemia patients – Siok Tey, Brisbane

Making a virtual human cell to explore how we’re made and how we can regenerate damaged organs – Pengyi Yang, Sydney



Research to improve bone marrow transplantation and to use computer science to understand how stem cells work has won two Australian researchers $55,000 each in the annual Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research, awarded by the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Associate Professor Siok Tey is researching treatments that will improve the survival and quality of life for her patients with leukaemia or other blood cancers.

“Bone marrow transplantation is an important form of treatment for blood cancers but it cures only two-thirds of patients,” says Siok, a clinician researcher at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.

“I would have died in two weeks if I hadn’t been diagnosed and treated when I was,” says sculptor David White, a 52-year-old father of two and one of Siok’s patients. “But the side effects were tough. So it’s exciting to see Siok working on better ways to keep saving lives.”

Siok will use her $55,000 Metcalf Prize to improve the outcomes of bone marrow transplantation, which rebuilds the blood and immune systems to protect patients from leukaemia relapse. Not all patients, however, stay in long-term remission and the treatment often comes with serious side effects. 

Siok plans to identify which transplanted cells provide protection from leukaemia relapse and which ones contribute to complications, and then to use this knowledge to develop better treatments.

Dr Pengyi Yang plans to transform stem cell research.

“Today’s stem cell treatments have been the product of trial and error. My virtual stem cell will allow us to understand what’s happening inside a single stem cell that makes it decide what type of cell it will become, be it hair, skin, muscle, nerve, blood or other.”

He is mapping the many, complex influences that control stem cells and how they specialise into different cell types.

Pengyi is based at the Children’s Medical Research Institute and at The University of Sydney. He aims to remove much of the guess work from stem cell science and eventually stem cell medicine.

“Pengyi Yang’s research unravelling the fundamentals of how different cell types form and Siok Tey’s work towards improving outcomes for her patients shows the breadth and the importance of stem cell research – from basic science to treatments in the clinic,” says Dr Graeme Blackman AO, the chairman of the Foundation.

The awards are named for the late Professor Donald Metcalf AC who, over a 50-year career, helped transform cancer treatment and transplantation medicine, paving the way for potential stem cell therapy in the treatment of many other conditions.

The 2021 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research will be formally presented at a special event later in the year.

Media contacts:

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

Niall Byrne, Science in Public, niall@scienceinpublic.com.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, AO, FTSE, FAICD.

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

More at: www.stemcellfoundation.net.au