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2015 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research Awarded to Brisbane and Perth researchers

18 May 2015
2015 Metcalf Prize winners Christine Wells and Ryan Lister (courtesy: AIBN at UQ and Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research)

Stem Cells Australia members Christine Wells and Ryan Lister have been recognized for their contribution and leadership in stem cell research by a $50,000 prize from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Associate Professor Christine Wells from The University of Queensland and the University of Glasgow, and Chief Investigator in the Stem Cells Australia initiave, is revolutionising the way stem cell researchers and bioinformaticians share information. Through the creation of an online encyclopedia – Stemformatics – Christine and her team are enabling the global stem cell research community 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.”

The Stemformatics initiative — a core platform for Stem Cells Australia - puts 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.

Professor Ryan Lister of the University of Western Australia and Stem Cells Australia Affiliate Investigator has discovered how adult stem cells retain a memory of what they once were and wants to be able to teach cells to forget the past.

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.

More recently 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.

The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia Metcalf 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. Previous winners include Monash University’s Associate Professor Jose Polo and Menzies Research Institute’s Dr Kaylene Young.

For more information visit the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.