Brisbane researcher sniffs out the cure for spinal injuries and other diseases

Through his work proving that cells within the nose can help regenerate the spinal cord, Brisbane scientist and 2017 Australian of the Year Alan Mackay-Sim has provided hope for the 12,000 people in Australia living with spinal injuries.

His pioneering research, that has been described as the scientific equivalent of landing on the moon, centred around the cells within the nose that give us our sense of smell.

In 2002, after decades of research, Professor Mackay-Sim proved that the spinal cord can be safely regenerated thanks to the cells in our nose called the autologous olfactory ensheathing cells.

“We take these olfactory ensheathing cells and grow them in a dish for a month or six weeks until we have enough of them and then inject them into the spinal cord of the patient around the area of injury,” he said.

Alan Mackay-Sim

Originally from NSW, Professor Mackay-Sim has been a researcher at Griffith University since 1987, where he started working in small department of the university studying cell biology. In 2002, along with his colleagues, Professor Mackay-Sim set up the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research within the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, where he has worked since he retiring in 2015.

It was his job that first lured him to Brisbane, but it was Griffith University, the facilities available to him, his team and the city itself that has kept him here for more than three decades.

“You can do biology here in Brisbane that you can’t do anywhere else in Australia because of the superior facilities we have,” he said. “That is really bringing a boom to our stem cell research and drug discovery.”

Professor Mackay-Sim’s work has been the catalyst for some amazing developments in the field of injury recovery and will soon be taken a step further thanks to a $5 million Queensland Government investment in a pre-clinical trial that aims to produce a 3D biodegradable nerve cell bridge that can be transplanted to repair injured spinal cords.

The Griffith University trial, led by fellow researcher Dr James St John and overseen by Mackay-Sim is expected to start in 2020 and is the next stage in the research he kick-started throughout his inspiring career devoted to changing lives.

“When I was finishing school I was heavily interested in biology and physiology and the brain. I decided that I wanted to become a researcher because I wanted to discover stuff and make an impact on the world,” he said.

After decades researching the cell biology of nose tissue Mackay-Sim completed the world’s first human clinical trial proving that it was safe and effective to use the cells from the nose to repair human spinal cord injuries. He refers to his breakthrough as “phase one” in a long journey to get from the lab and into clinical use. The next step was when a team from the Cambridge University’s Stem Cell Institute applied this concept to cure spinal injury in dogs.

Then, in 2014 a team of British and Polish researchers successfully treated a patient with chronic spinal injury who then regained motor and sensory function.

The Griffith University pre-clinical trial is the next stage of the cutting-edge of research in this area, positioning Queensland researchers as the global leaders in injury recovery medical research.

Professor Mackay-Sim said the Griffith team will prepare for the pre-clinical trial over the next few years by developing the cell cultures needed; looking for drug compounds that will stimulate their activities; engineering the nerve bridge and working on rehabilitation for patients.

As well as spinal cord injury, Professor Mackay-Sim has applied his research on nose cells towards understanding causes of neurological diseases like Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia and hereditary spastic paraplegia, and trying to find drugs to help treat these diseases.

“We are actually going to be taking a drug for the rare neuro-degenerative disease called hereditary spastic paraplegia to clinical trial next year,” he said. “So in 10 years I am hoping that drug actually works in people and that it is improving their lives.”

Professor Mackay-Sim understands first-hand why it is so important to get new treatments from the lab to the patient as quickly as possible. A few years ago the scientist was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and underwent his own stem cell transplant.

“Being a stem cell researcher really helped me through this process, but the stem cells used in my treatment were stem cells from the body and not the same ones I work on,” he said. “I was certainly anxious about the treatment but my knowledge and discussions helped. It really hasn’t changed my view to my professional research.”

While officially retired, Professor Mackay-Sim is known as Professor Emeritus, which means he still maintains a connection to Griffith University and the work he has pioneered for so many years.

In light of the contribution he has made to medical research in the country throughout his career, he was named as Australian of the Year in 2017 and says he intends to use this position to promote science and STEM education to young kids and their families.

“Our new jobs are going to come out of science and technology and our ethical debates about a lot of new technologies or the effect of climate change, they will all need some kind of basic science,” he said. “I think having a scientist as Australian of the Year is great because it really ups the street cred among school kids that science is cool and I’m really pleased that there are people relating to the science message.

As well as being the best place in the world for conducting his research, Professor Mackay-Sim said Brisbane is a very liveable city.

“Brisbane is where my wife and I started our family, it is a great place for families and still cheaper than other cities to be able to buy a house,” he said.

“My wife and I have a love of bicycling, so we were able to buy a house near a bike track and get in and out of the city and the ability to be able to do that has only expanded since then.”

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