Medical Research Translation
Professor Alan Mackay-Sim
People's Choice Awards
Alan picks at noses to repair spinal cord injuries
Ever since he was child, Alan Mackay-Sim has wanted to know how the body works. "I was fascinated as a kid about how my body worked. It's always been about the brain and its control over the body. ‘How does my leg know what to do?'"
He boldly told his school career advisor he wanted to become a brain researcher and quickly switched from psychology to biology while at university in order to find a science with a more tangible connection to health.
In the end, that fascination boiled down to expertise in the workings of a specific cell in the nose called the olfactory ensheathing cell. This cell is vital for the lifelong regeneration of the nasal nerve cells - providing the scaffolding for the nerve development between the nose and the brain which gives us our sense of smell.
But Alan's groundbreaking research uses the cell in a different context altogether, literally transplanting it into the spinal cord. Animal studies by Alan and his team suggest that there it may be able to repair the catastrophic damage that paralyses between 250 and 300 Australians every year.
The first human trial to test the safety of transplanting the olfactory ensheathing cells into the spine under rigorous clinical trial conditions was directed by Alan in Brisbane between 2005 and 2008. It saw three participants with significant spinal fractures have between 12 million and 20 million of their own lab-cultivated nasal cells transplanted into their spines as part of a controlled blind study.
After three years' careful monitoring, the trial demonstrated that the procedure is safe. At the same time, while the participants had such significant spinal injuries that improvement wasn't expected, one recipient did have a marked enhancement in sensitivity to touch and pin pricks.
Plans are now underway to do further safety trials in Australia and internationally in Italy, the UK, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Australia.
Expectations are high because previous trials by Alan and his team have shown that the cells can help to repair less significant spinal damage in paraplegic rats.
"We were able to demonstrate that the cells in the nose could have the reparatory effect in studies of rat paraplegia."
But he says the great challenge, as with the development of any drug treatment, is replicating the results from animal studies in humans.
"I'm confident that we'll get some other safety data and then that will be an impetus to move to the next stage trials in the neck injuries where we have more hope of repair of the tissue. That's where I really want to go forward."
"It seems more like an adventure rather than a challenge."
Alan is the Director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research at Griffith University. He entered his research in the Eureka Prize for Medical Research Translation.
Professor Alan Mackay-Sim
Griffith University, QLD