Biomedical scientist Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim has been named the 2017 Australian of the Year for his groundbreaking advances in stem cell research and the treatment of spinal cord injuries.
Professor MacKay-Sim, the director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research, was presented with the award by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House.
Vicki Jellie (Australia’s Local Hero), Sister Anne Gardiner AM (Senior Australian of the Year) and Paul Vasileff (Young Australian of Year) were also honoured in Canberra on Wednesday night.
Professor MacKay-Sim was recognised for giving hope to thousands of Australians and people across the world with spinal injuries, and his dedicated work in stem cell research.
In 2014, his research played a key role in the world’s first successful restoration of mobility in a quadriplegic man – which involved extracting cells from the patient’s nose and injecting them above and below the spinal cord injury.
It was a breakthrough deemed as the scientific equivalent to the moon landing.
Professor Mackay-Sim hopes 2017 will bring about opportunities
He has also championed the use of stem cells to understand the biological bases of brain disorders and diseases such as schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and hereditary spastic paraplegia.
More than 12,000 Australians are living with spinal cord injuries and there is at least one new occurrence every day, but thanks to Professor Mackay-Sim’s hand in the revolutionary procedure, the prospects of regeneration and recovery – and eventually a cure – are much more positive.
In an interview with News Corp, Mr Mackay-Sim spoke about how cancer nearly took his life. He spoke about being diagnosed with multiple myeloma – a rare, incurable form of leukaemia – and needing a stem cell transplant himself.
“There were suddenly no cells in my bone marrow. Think of it like a balloon inside a pillow — the balloon is the cancer inflating the pillow — and then when the cancer cells get killed by chemotherapy, the balloon loses pressure and then collapses.”
He said he lost 23kg and 9cm in height. Doctors were able to harvest his healthy cells so he didn’t need a donor.
“I was now a small, short, very, very weak person. I felt as if I’d aged 20 or 30 years. How do you come to terms with that?”
“Look, the whole thing was a shock. There’s grief, a loss of innocence, but I’m not unique in that. Everyone who faces it has their own version, I don’t class myself as anybody different in the way you react to it — it’s a cancer and it’s a cancer that’s going to kill you, and you have to come to terms with that.”
One of four brothers, he grew up on Sydney’s North Shore to parents Malcolm, owner of a hardware distribution company, and Lois, a former nurse. He revealed that “human biology always fascinated me”. “Instead of putting together model cars I put together I put together The Invisible Man, this plastic model of the human body, learning the names of the bones and organs and painting them all.”
Mackay-Sim opening doors for stem cell research
According to Dr James St John, a colleague of Professor Mackay-Sim at the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research, his achievements are instrumental for the advancement of stem cell research.
“We are so excited because it allows us to advertise how wonderful his contribution is, and how scientists are working together throughout the world to make this happen,” Dr St John told The New Daily.
“He was the first in the world to show this therapy of using olfactory ensheathing cells in the nose and putting them into the spinal cord was safe for use in humans – and when he did that it was really gutsy.
“Because at the time it was early days in this type of research, and he believed his science and went ahead and did it.
“And because of what he did, it’s been shown to work in humans to repair the spinal cord by teams around the world which is brilliant, it’s remarkable what he’s done.
“We are taking his research to the next level to try and get it into the clinic.”
Learn more about Alan Mackay-Sim’s work below:
Sister awarded Senior Australian of the Year
The Senior Australian of the Year is Sister Anne Gardiner AM, for her lifelong commitment to connecting community and cultures together in the Tiwi Islands.
In 1953, as a 22-year-old member of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Sister Gardiner moved to Bathurst Island to live among the Tiwi people.
In her 63 years since, Sister Gardiner, 85, has donated her life celebrating Tiwi culture.
Sister Gardiner has worked tirelessly with the local people to document and preserve the Tiwi language for future generations – culminating in the Patakajiyali museum, which shares valuable Tiwi stories, language and traditional customs.
“I accept it in the name of all Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart who have lived and ministered among Australia’s indigenous people for more than a century, and on behalf of the Tiwi people of northern Australia, in whose life I have been privileged to share for more than 50 years as an invited member of their community,” Sister Gardiner said.
Global designer named Young Australian of the Year
An acclaimed fashion designer and business entrepreneur has been honoured, receiving Young Australian of the Year for his international success.
Paul Vasileff, 26, stitched his first dress at the age of 11 and has taken his talent to extraordinary heights, graduating from Milan’s prestigious Europeo Istituto di Design and is now the brains behind couture label Paolo Sebastian.
Mr Vasileff was told he would have to uproot his Australian-based label to succeed internationally. in such a crowded industry.
He refused, manufacturing his creations in his hometown of Adelaide, and is now thriving on the world stage.
“In the time where the majority of production is moving offshore, I wanted to locally produce my product and sustain the art of couture in Australia,” Mr Vasileff said.
“In doing so, I was able to give Paolo Sebastian its point of difference, which would take it on to an international stage.
“I’m proud today that we’re able to nurture and uphold these skills locally and provide Australians with jobs and give them a chance to live out their dreams, too.”
His luxurious products are found in boutiques in New York and across the globe, and have been worn by celebrities walking the red carpet at the Oscars and Logies.
Fundraising champion dubbed Australia’s Local Hero
Vicki Jellie personifies what it means to be a local hero, taking an idea to help make a difference and bringing about change to benefit the many.
After her husband Peter died of cancer in 2008, Ms Jellie found his plans for a local cancer fundraising event, as his dream soon become her passion.
His dream had been to bring radiotherapy services to the south-west of Victoria.
She began her campaign in 2009, bringing community leaders together to initiate Peter’s Project – a group dedicated to fighting for better cancer services.
She was told a cancer centre in Warrnambool would “never happen”, but she didn’t give up.
And by May 2014, that dream become a reality, as she announced $5 million had been raised by the community, and $25 million funded by state and federal governments.
In July 2016, the new South West Regional Cancer Centre opened, offering radiotherapy treatment for regional patients.