Teaching stem cells to forget the past

Professor Ryan Lister has been awarded a $50,000 2015 Metcalf prize, from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia, in recognition of his leadership in stem cell research.

Ryan Lister
Professor Ryan Lister

The Metcalf Prize is a prestigious award that honours exceptional contributions made to stem cell research. It is presented to only two recipients in Australia every year who have carried out ground breaking work in the field.

Professor Lister is a Professor at UWA, the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.

He has discovered how adult stem cells retain a memory of what they once were. He believes he can make them forget their past lives, as for example skin cells, so their history doesn’t limit their new potential to become brain, heart, liver, blood and other cells.

In 2009, Professor Lister constructed the first complete maps of the complex human epigenome—millions of small chemical signposts added to our DNA that can turn genes ‘on’ and ‘off’. TIME magazine named this the second most important discovery that year. Over the life of a cell this packaging accumulates chemical changes or ‘memories’ of the cell’s role.

He then turned his attention to studying adult stem cells or ‘induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells’ made from, for example, adult skin cells.

While iPS cells appear to have reverted back to embryonic childhood, Professor Lister found they carry some adult baggage with them, retaining chemical memories. These memories may result in unpredictable and undesirable cell growth, limiting medical potential of iPS cells.

“We want to create a tool that will allow us to understand, edit and correct any ‘memories’ that might result in cell behaviour that we want to avoid. Ultimately, this could lead to new stem cells derived from adult cells that can be safely used to treat patients, for example, new cardiac cells to heal damaged heart tissues," he said.

Professor Lister said The Metcalf prize was very important as it provided essential resources to support new research in stem cell technology.

“I feel privileged to receive this prize, but it’s also important to acknowledge the crucial contributions of  many excellent collaborators to this research,” Professor Lister said.

“I’m greatly appreciative of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia for supporting this initiative, which is really important for promoting stem cell research in Australia.”

The winner of the other Metcalf prize is Christine Wells from the University of Queensland who has created an online encyclopaedia which led to the discovery of a new kind of stem cell.

The awards are named for the late Professor Donald Metcalf, AC, who died in December 2014. Over his 50-year career, Professor Metcalf helped transform cancer treatment and transplantation medicine, and paved the way for potential stem cell therapy in the treatment of many other conditions.

For more information on the 2015 Metcalf prizes, visit www.stemcellfoundation.net.au


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