2018 Metcalf Prize winners are using stem cells to understand cancer resistance and how to heal hearts

14 November 2018

Associate Professor Enzo Porrello of the University of Melbourne and Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Dr Heather Lee of the University of Newcastle have both received $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia in recognition of their leadership in stem cell research.


A/Prof Enzo Porrello heads the Cardiac Regeneration Laboratory at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute [link to MCRI], The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, and is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Melbourne.

For a few short days after birth, the heart can regenerate damaged tissue. Enzo wants to understand why this ability turns off, so that he and colleagues can switch it back on to induce repair in hearts that have failed to fully develop or have been damaged by injury or illness.

Understanding regeneration could lead to new treatments for different types of heart disease, the world’s biggest killer, from birth defects to heart attacks late in life.

“I recently showed that the hearts of newborn mice can regenerate after a heart attack,” Enzo says. “But this self-healing ability rapidly diminishes in the days after birth.”

Enzo thinks there is a similar capacity in humans. He is using stem cells to recreate the development of the heart in the lab to study the processes and the genes involved in turning self-healing on and off.

He wants to develop drugs that can stimulate heart muscle cells to rebuild after a heart attack.

He is also part of a new consortium that aims to engineer new working heart tissue to treat children with heart disease, made from their own stem cells.

Dr Heather Lee is a Cancer Institute NSW Fellow at Hunter Medical Research Institute and the University of Newcastle.

Heather invented a way to study the genetics of individual cells more closely that will help her find out why some cancer cells are treatable, and others go rogue. With her new technique, she can see the chemical ‘flags’ that tell the cell how to interpret its genetic code. At the same time, she can watch how those instructions are—or aren’t—carried out.

Heather and other scientists use the technique to study what makes rogue cancer cells different at a genetic level.

Heather is now studying cells from patients with acute myeloid leukaemia to see how just a few cells can resist treatment and go on to cause a fatal relapse. She hopes this will lead to new, more effective drug treatments for this devastating disease.

The Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research are awarded annually to two exceptional mid-career stem cell researchers by the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Commenting on this year’s awards, Chair of the Foundation Dr Graeme Blackman, AO, said, “We hope that supporting Heather Lee’s work will help her share a valuable new technique for cancer researchers, and that Enzo Porrello’s work will help us tackle Australia’s biggest killer.”

“Once again, we’ve been stunned by the quality of the applications. Heather and Enzo stood out from a very competitive field of young research leaders.”

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

Associate Professor Enzo Porrello is a Chief Investigator at Stem Cells Australia; Dr Heather Lee is an Affiliate Investigator. Other members of Stem Cells Australia who have been awarded the Metcalf prize include Associate Professor Jessica Mar (2017), Associate Professor James Chong (2016), Professor Christine Wells (2015), Professor Ryan Lister (2015), and Professor Jose Polo (2014). 

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The Australasian Society for Stem Cell Research (ASSCR)