Leading Adult Stem Cell Researcher named Australian of the Year

By Xavier Symons

Alan Mackay-Sim

Alan Mackay-Sim

A little over a decade ago Australia was fiercely debating the ethics of stem cell research.

Now one of the central figures of that debate, adult stem cell researcher Alan Mackay-Sim, has been named Australian of the Year.

Mackay-Sim, who received the award at a ceremony in Canberra last week, was a pioneer in the use of stem cells for regenerative purposes. In 2002 he became the first scientist in the world to use olfactory ensheathing cells to bring about spinal regeneration in humans. The procedure was used by Polish researchers in 2012 to help a man paralyzed from the chest down to walk again.

Yet Mackay-Sim was also embroiled in the Australian campaign against embryonic stem-cell research. In the early 2000s, IVF pioneer Alan Trounson — then director of a national stem cell research Centre — was leading a campaign for a massive government funded embryonic stem cell research initiative. Mackay-Sim’s work was often used as evidence against funding the Trounson project.

Some see Mackay’s recent accolade as a vindication of adult stem-cell research, which at one point received significantly less funding than its alternative. Writing in The Australian, columnist Angela Shanahan remarked:

“By concentrating on the use of adult stem cells rather than ­embryonic stem cells, Mackay-Sim’s research bypassed the most contentious ethical debates, and, what is more, he did this with very limited funds. He and his team deserve full credit for that.”

Others say that Mackay-Sim’s award is encouragement and “hope” for all stem-cell researchers. Writing in The Conversation, University of Melbourne stem-cell researcher Melissa Little said:

“while innovation is recognized by the major parties as a key driver for future success, their commitment to research funding in this country isn’t in line with their innovation focus…to have the spotlight turned towards the potential of stem cell science and the researchers in this field also brings us “hope”

Editor’s note. This appeared at Bioedge and is reposted with permission.