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2019 Metcalf Prize winners are using stem cells to understand how the heart develops and the plasticity of breasts

04 November 2019
Congratulations Felicity and James
Associate Professor James Hudson of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Dr Felicity Davis of the University of Queensland’s Mater Research Institute have both received $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia in recognition of their leadership in stem cell research.

Associate Professor James Hudson, from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, induces stem cells to form ‘organoids’ – miniature beating hearts. To date, he has created 20,000 of them.

As well as using them to study diseases and test new pharmaceuticals, he also deploys the organoids to study how heart muscle cells obtain and use energy, and how this influences their ability to regenerate. His goal is to make new tissue to repair damaged hearts

“We’re trying to understand how the heart works in order to fix it; the same way a car mechanic needs to understand how a car engine works in order to fix it,” he says.

Cardiovascular disease kills an average of 23 Australians every day, and scientists face an urgent need for human heart tissue to use in research. James’ cell-culturing system removes the need for manual handling and automates the whole process of producing it, massively increasing supply. 

This in turn dramatically speeds up testing for heart drug candidates.

The process, however, has limitations. The heart is one of the least regenerative organs. Most of its growth after birth comes from muscle cells, known as cardiomyocytes, getting larger. If adult cells are damaged, the body can’t replace them.

The lab-grown heart tissue, while extremely useful in research, is not developed enough to be used in a treatment setting.

“The process of maturation is really important for the heart,” he says. “No one really knows what makes these tissues become fully mature.”

James and his colleagues are now seeking to develop appropriately robust cardiac tissue for use in patients.

“In five years, I hope we will be closer to or even starting clinical trials for stem cell-derived patches for cardiovascular repair and for drug candidates we helped identify, with many more treatments in the pipeline behind them,” he says.

Dr Felicity Davis of the University of Queensland’s Mater Research Institute is investigating the secret life of mammaries: how they develop, how they change during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and how things can go wrong.

“Breast stem cells live in a world of change – from a basic mammary structure in the embryo, to rapid growth during puberty, and then drastically changing again with each pregnancy,” she says.

Both researchers are transforming our understanding of how we might work with stem cells to understand, prevent and treat disease.

The Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research are awarded annually to two exceptional mid-career stem cell researchers by the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia. James will be joining other members of Stem Cells Australia who have been awarded the Metcalf prize including Associate Professor Enzo Porrello and Dr Heather Lee (2018), Associate Professor Jessica Mar (2017), Associate Professor James Chong (2016), Professor Christine Wells (2015), Professor Ryan Lister (2015), and Professor Jose Polo (2014). 

Commenting on this year’s awards, Chair of the Foundation Dr Graeme Blackman, AO, said,  “We hope that supporting Felicity Davis’ work will help make a difference in this important area of women’s and children’s health, and that James Hudson’s work will help us tackle Australia’s biggest killer.” 

“Both scientists are great examples of the depth and breadth of stem cell research undertaken in Australia – all of it bringing us closer to important clinical outcomes.”

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.

Associate Professor James Hudson is an Affiliate Investigator with Stem Cells Australia.