Stem cell research grant up for grabs

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A $100,000 stem cell research grant that has made what one scientist called “a huge difference” into cancer research is once again on offer by the archdiocese of Sydney.

Associate Professor Louise Purton of St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research in Victoria won the grant in 2013.

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She is now exploring new ways of transplanting umbilical cord blood stem cells in the hope the research will one day save the lives of leukaemia patients.

While the Church condemns as “a profound horror and injustice” the use of human embryonic stem cells, it welcomes research into adult or blood stem cells.

“The mighty stem cells of the human body were first theorised about by scientists as early as the 1860s, but the last 60 years have seen the most significant advances in understanding these cells and their potential to heal,” said Mary Joseph, project officer with the Sydney Life, Marriage and Family Centre.

“Stem cells are powerful ‘mother cells’ in the body, capable of self-renewing and also of potentially developing into other kinds of cells.”

“Adult stem cells are found in the brain, blood vessels, bone marrow, spinal cord and many other adult tissues and organs,” Miss Joseph said.

“Blood stem cells can be harvested from the umbilical cords of babies after they are born.

“Numerous clinical trials involving therapies developed from adult stem cell research are currently being conducted around the world, including the first ever clinical trial of a stem cell treatment for multiple sclerosis.”

The archdiocesan stem cell grant was launched in 2003 to foster Australian research on the therapeutic possibilities of adult stem cells.

Past winners have explored the potential of adult stem cells in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, burns, cancer and stroke.

This year’s winning research project will be selected by an independent panel based on innovativeness, potential therapeutic applications, research history, and adherence to both international standards of scientific excellence and the Catholic Health Australia Code of Ethical Standards.

In her 2013 application, Associate Professor Purton said the team’s goal was to find a way to transplant adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood into patients for whom a suitable donor match cannot be found.

Patients with blood cell diseases, including leukaemia, often need to undergo a blood-forming stem cell transplant with a risk of graft versus host disease, where the body is attacked by its own white blood cells.

“This results in severe side effects that can lead to death,” she said.

Umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells, collected from the umbilical cord after birth, have recently been shown to be an excellent source of stem cells for patients requiring a transplant from a donor where a matching donor cannot be found.

But there are downsides.

“A single unit of UCB stem cells is sufficient to transplant small children but not adults,” she explained.

“Furthermore, the biggest issue facing all patients – adults and children – transplanted with UCB stem cells is significantly delayed recovery of mature blood cells, putting the patients at risk of bleeding and infection, which could result in their death.

“Discovering new ways of increasing the numbers of stem cells and the blood-forming cells which give rise to mature blood cells more readily for UCB transplantation purposes is therefore of high importance and could save many lives.”

The new method was successfully applied to mice stem cells, and is now being tested on human cells.

“With funding from the Catholic Archdiocese Stem Cell Grant, we are now determining if it similarly works on human UCB stem cells, success in which would improve transplantation outcomes for patients with numerous blood cell diseases.”