Spinal cord injury scientist named Australian of the Year

A scientist and international leader in stem cell research, Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, who has given hope to thousands of Australians with spinal cord injuries has been named Australian of the Year. A global authority on the human sense of smell and the biology of nasal cells, Professor Mackay-Sim led the world's first clinical trial using these cells in spinal cord injury.

Australian of the year Alan Mackay-Sim spinal cord injury scientist

Professor Mackay-Sim's research helped play a central role in the world's first successful restoration of mobility in a man with a spinal cord injury (paraplegia). Professor Mackay-Sim's work was central to the 2014 surgery that allowed Darek Fidyka, a Polish firefighter, to walk again and even ride a custom-built bicycle. The success was hailed by fellow researcher Geoff Raisman as more impressive than the moon landing.

As the director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research for a decade, Professor Mackay-Sim's research 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. His pioneering work has led to collaborations with teams of health professionals who are translating his research into clinical practice. He has laid the foundation for the next generation of researchers and demonstrated the value of inquiry, persistence and empathy.

Professor Mackay-Sim himself relied on a stem cell transplant two years ago when he was diagnosed with myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer.

He said Australia should prioritise research and health spending not only to care for people with disability and serious medical conditions in the community, but for radical treatments to reduce health costs, including the seven clinical trials under way in Australia testing new treatments for spinal cord injury.

"Researchers need a long view, much longer than the political horizon," he said.

"More than 10,000 people in Australia have a spinal injury and we add to that tally by a person every day and the cost to Australia is about $2 billion annually."

"Now 60 years ago, Australia was one of the first countries to move away from the idea that spinal cord injuries could not be treated and intense research in the last 20 years gives hope that future spinal cord injuries will be treated early and the effects minimised."

Professor Mackay-Sims said he hoped to use the award to raise awareness of spinal cord injuries, research into rare brain diseases and funding for reserach.

Peter Perry, CEO of Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA) said, "we are excited that a scientist working to improve the lives of people with spinal cord injury has been given this national honour. This year SCIA is celebrating our 50th anniversary, so it is very appropriate that in 2017 our nation's attention is turning to the struggles people with spinal cord injury face, both in terms of the access to medical treatments to rehabilitate them after their injury, and the barriers that exist within society that can stop them from fulfilling their potential.

Professor Mackay-Sims appointment as Australian of the Year is heartening, and indicative that we as a society want and need to improve outcomes for people with spinal cord injury – and that 2017 is the year to do it." 

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