ALAN Mackay-Sim’s fascination with the human body stretches back to his childhood in Sydney.
“I remember being about 12 and wandering down an uneven bush track and thinking, ‘How the hell can I walk along here and compensate for the ground, the uneven ground, and it’s all automatic?’” He says. “It was a feeling of wonder at how we work and I remember even then thinking I’d one day like to figure it out.”
Today the celebrated biomedical scientist and professor at Queensland’s Griffith University is a world authority on the human sense of smell and his groundbreaking work with stem cells has given hope to thousands of Australians with spinal cord injuries.
As director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research, Alan championed has the use of stem cells to understand brain disorders and diseases including schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and hereditary spastic paraplegia.
He also led the world’s first clinical trial using stem cells to treat spinal cord injury.
In 2014 Alan’s research played a key role in the first ever successful restoration of mobility in a paraplegic person. “The patient was a man in Poland who had a stab wound to his spinal cord in the thoracic chest region,” says Alan.
“Since the treatment he’s standing, he’s walking on a walker and this year I’ve seen a video of him walking better and riding a tricycle around a gym. His feet are strapped in but he can deliver power to his legs to ride and to steer and … it’s bloody amazing!”
Ever the scientist, however, Alan cautions that much work lies ahead if progress is to be made in benefiting other people with spinal cord injuries. “While the patient in Poland is a very good achievement, it’s scientifically the conservative to say, ‘Well that’s one example. Give me some more examples,’” says Alan.
“It’s three years since he had the injury and the odds are that this is because he had these cells put in his spinal cord rather than some other effect but, you know, yes — you really need to repeat it to show that it’s pretty impressive.”
Although retired, Alan remains emeritus professor at Griffith University and lists repeating the success that was had in Poland as one of his major goals. “We have a team whose intentions are to move the clinical trials forward,” he says. “I’m chair of a scientific advisory board for that so that’s one goal — to see the next phase of clinical trials.
“My other goal is to progress our clinical trials in a drug that we’ve found for a disease called hereditary spastic paraplegia. We’ve got a drug that we’re going to take to clinics to phase one clinical trials, for safety trials. My goal would be to take that through to phase two, which is the efficacy trial, and to get that drug into the population.”
Today, Alan is acknowledged as having laid the foundation for the next generation of researchers in his field and says the future of medical science is immensely exciting.
“I started my university degree in 1970,” he says. “In that time our understanding of neuroscience has multiplied 1000 times over. And with the technologies that are available, and with our application of all sorts of chemistries; all sorts of computing techniques, all sorts of machinery and instruments, technologies like the genome, the stem-cell technologies — these are all huge developments.”
“It’s an exciting time to be around and if we can afford the science I can definitely say can there’s a rosy future for humanity ahead.”
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