Stem cell scientist Alan Mackay-Sim presents talk at IHMRI

Groundbreaking research: The 2017 Australian of the Year, Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, delivered a public talk at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute on Monday. Picture: Adam McLean
Groundbreaking research: The 2017 Australian of the Year, Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, delivered a public talk at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute on Monday. Picture: Adam McLean

The stem cell scientist whose research helped a paraplegic walk again told Wollongong researchers on Monday that these cells were also the key to successfully treating brain diseases like schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, the 2017 Australian of the Year, outlined his life’s work at a public talk at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at UOW.

It was back in the 1980s that he started investigating stem cells in the nose – research that was central to the 2014 surgery which allowed Polish man Darek Fidyka to walk again after his spinal cord was cut in a knife attack.

‘’I’ve always been interested in the sense of smell in the nose and the fact that every day those neurons that allow us to smell die and have to be regenerated,’’ Prof Mackay-Sim said.

‘’Because the stem cells that regenerate these neurons (olfactory ensheathing cells) are so accessible, I thought we could use them to repair damage to the nervous system in the future, including spinal cord injury.’’

After many years of research, in 2002 Prof Mackay-Sim led a Brisbane team in a world-first clinical trial where a patient’s olfactory cells were transplanted into their injured spinal cord in the first stages of a therapy to treat paraplegia.

A dozen years after that breakthrough, came the European team’s successful stem cell surgery on Mr Fidyka.

The Polish firefighter, who had been stabbed 18 times in the back by his partner’s former husband, was the first paraplegic in the world to recover mobility after the complete severing of the spinal nerves.

‘’The successful surgery (in Poland) was extremely exciting,’’ Prof Mackay-Sim said. ‘’We now have a project at Griffith University and are working towards human trials here in Australia.’’

Adequate funding for such research was vital, he said, and would ultimately help ease the strain on the nation’s health budget.

‘’Spinal cord injury affects 15,000 Australians, and costs the community $26 billion a year – aside from the terrible personal costs,’’ he said.

‘’By funding research into new treatments, we would ultimately be able to reduce those costs.’’

Prof Mackay-Sim established the National Centre for Adult Stem Research, which features an adult stem cell bank from over 300 people with neurological conditions including schizophrenia, hereditary spastic paraplegia and motor neuron disease.

‘’I’m a great advocate for using stem cells for discovering the biological causes of disease,’’ he said.

‘’By looking at the biological differences in the cells of people with these diseases, it tells us how these diseases happen, and helps us work out new and better ways to treat them.’’