Written by Stem Cells Australia members Freya Bruveris and Ana Rita Leitoguinho from Murdoch Children's Research Institute, and Jennifer Hollands from The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health.

Stem cell research was recently brought out of the laboratory and into the public discourse in an open public forum held in conjunction with the 16th Annual Meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) in Melbourne, Australia, and was proudly sponsored by the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

The public forum, "Stem Cell Research – Now and in the Future," was held at Deakin's Edge in Federation Square, and featured stem cell scientists sharing their research and answering questions from a crowd of people curious about stem cell research. Before the panel discussion began, early-career researchers were on-hand to explain their science, and a Stem Cell Stories photography exhibit showed how stem cells can look under the microscope, giving an appreciation for how these cells can be studied. 

A spotlight on Australian stem cell research 

Australia has a long history and record of achievement in stem cell science, and the panel of leading Australian researchers explained how they use stem cells to understand normal and abnormal biological processes in the blood, skin, heart, eye, and kidney.

Professor Susie Nilsson from the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation opened the session by discussing her work to improve bone marrow transplantation, the oldest clinically approved stem cell treatment, which has its roots in Australian research. Strikingly, transplanted blood stem cells can cure patients of a variety of blood cancers or anemias. Dr. Nilsson has identified a small molecule that both improves the ability to collect these stem cells for transplantation and helps target leukemic stem cells for destruction, which she is bringing to phase I clinical trial to try to improve bone marrow transplantation for patients worldwide. 

Associate Professor James Chong from the University of Sydney is researching how stem cells can be used to treat heart disease. In the lab, he can use stem cells to make billions of heart muscle cells, which you can see beating together in a dish. He is currently working out how he can deliver these cells to patients to repair cardiac muscle after a heart attack. 

Dr. Michael O'Connor of Western Sydney University is using stem cells to study the lens and the process by which it forms cataracts. Since the location of the lens within the eye makes it inaccessible, he has figured out how to use stem cells to make micro-lenses that can focus light and develop cataracts. He is hoping to use these stem cell-derived lenses to identify drugs that can delay cataract formation in adults or be transplanted into the eyes of children who have already developed cataracts. 

Associate Professor Pritinder Kaur of Curtin University was the first to isolate skin stem cells from human skin and demonstrate their ability to regenerate large areas of epidermal tissue.  She discussed how she is trying to improve upon this stunning therapy, which can replace skin covering the surface of most of a human by improving the regeneration of other key cell types in the dermis that are also required for critical functions. 

Closing the series of presentations was the chair of the Program Committee for the ISSCR meeting, Professor Melissa Little from Murdoch Children's Research Institute talking about her work on the kidney. Unfortunately, only one in four patients with kidney disease is able to receive a transplant. She has built a mini-kidney in a dish that can be used to identify drugs to improve kidney disease, and hopefully one day can build a kidney large enough that could be transplanted into a human patient. 

Promising Area of Medical Research

The audience had a number of questions about the stem cell field, and the potential of this science to treat and cure disease. Questions focused on how technology might speed up stem cell research, the future of stem cells in the clinic, and the status of stem cells in clinical trials (view the complete forum including answers to all of these questions and visit A Closer Look at Stem Cells to learn more). 

The panelists described their views of a changing future of amazing, but potentially disruptive, technology and the need to proceed with research in a careful and ethical manner. Together, gene therapy and stem cell research have the ability to make new cells that can do new things, and the speakers mentioned the next generation of therapeutics that are currently being developed. Moderator Megan Munsie, winner of the 2018 ISSCR Public Service Award, discussed the promise of treatments and the need for stem cell therapies to be tested through clinical trials to ensure that cell products delivered to patients have scientific justification and are proven to be safe. Panelists stressed the need for the field to progress safely and integrate what is learned from experience as the science develops. 

Important Outreach

Engaging with the community and policy makers is key for scientists. When we explain what we do and how our work is making a difference in improving public health, we can generate support for science and drive innovation forward. Dr. Little cautioned that "science is a slow process," and public patience is required so that researchers and clinicians can ensure new stem cell therapies are rigorously tested and shown to be safe and effective before they are made available in mainstream medical practice. 

By developing an open dialogue between stem cell researchers and the public, together we hope to usher in a new and exciting era of medicine in which some diseases currently termed 'untreatable' will become treatable in the near future. 

For more information about stem cell medicine research at MCRI, go to: www.mcri.edu.au/stemcells