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Grand new path for lifesaver cells

13th February, 2008

A new initiative between Monash and Peking University promises sweeping advances in stem cell research.

Cancer, deadly liver diseases, and high-profile epidemics are all at the focus of a momentous partnership agreement signed on a November afternoon in Beijing.

Worth nearly $2 million, the new Australia-China Centre for Excellence in Stem Cell Research will pool the people, knowledge, and scientific technologies of Peking and Monash universities, accelerating investigations into the true nature of a stem cell and opening up new commercial potential.

“Stem cell research is exploding. There’s never been anything like this in medical research, probably in any kind of research, so it would be naive to think that any one institute could handle all of it. What we need to do is make strategic alliances with really good people,” says Professor Richard Boyd, Acting Director of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories and Project Director of the new centre.

The new centre is the brainchild of former MISCL director Professor Alan Trounson and Professor Lingsong-Li, who heads the prestigious Peking University Stem Cell Research Centre, which was selected in 2006 as China’s heartland of regenerative medicine. Almost half of the Australia-China Centre’s money arrives from the Federal Government’s Australia-China Special Fund for Scientific and Technological Cooperation, and dignitaries from both countries presided over the signing ceremony.

Professor Boyd describes the work of the two universities as completely complementary, with not one point of competition.

“There are multiple types of stem cell and each of them will have their own discrete specific properties, but there will be many overlapping properties. So the more people you’ve got working in a coordinated fashion, comparing the similarities and differences of cells including those found in the liver, thymus and pancreas cells, the quicker you get a handle on what is the true nature of a stem cell,” says Professor Boyd.

Among other things, Peking University will benefit from MISCL’s immunology strengths – including work on new therapies for boosting immune defence mechanisms – while Australian scientists will tap into Peking’s vast reagent facilities while Australian scientists will tap into Peking University’s vast reagent facilities and its highly-regarded clinical experience with stem cell therapies.

As a country, China is building on its reputation as a fierce manufacturing economy by becoming a hot-spot of scientific research. By luring prominent scientists from overseas with lucrative jobs, the country also invests in the ensuing high-profile institutional connections such as the new Australia-China Centre.

For stem cell scientists and other medical researchers, the broader availability of clinical trials in China also means an accelerated development phase for new therapies.

“Stem cell research is all about treating people. So, by force of numbers, when you’ve got 1.3 billion people, the numbers of people turning up to hospital are ten-fold what we have.  That’s a resource that will help us to more rapidly drive our pre-clinical mouse studies through to the early stages in the clinic,” says Professor Boyd.

He also foresees positive impacts for MISCL’s emerging role in education and patient advocacy, through which seriously ill members of the public can contact the centre for the latest updates on stem cell treatments and the length of time it will take for them to reach the clinic. The new collaboration with China could become especially relevant to members of the local Chinese-speaking community.

It’s just one more item on the agenda of the centre’s first workshop between 30 March and 2 April, when Chinese delegates will visit Monash to further discuss bright new research, clinical and commercial plans involving tiny cells.

Delegates from both universities, along with representatives from the Australian and Chinese governments, attended the signing ceremony

Delegates from both universities, along with representatives from the Australian and Chinese governments, attended the signing ceremony