A scientist widely recognised as a world leader in adult stem cell research has been awarded Australia’s highest civic honour.
Professor Alan Mackay-Sim was named Australian of the Year for 2017. His groundbreaking work has been called “more impressive than man walking on the moon”.
In 2014, his clinical trial helped a paralysed man become the first person in the world to recover from total severing of the spinal nerves.
Prof Mackay-Sim said it was an “unbelievable honour”.
“I’m hoping 2017 will be a wonderful opportunity to talk about the importance of research on spinal cord and rare brain diseases,” he added.
The professor was presented with his award by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a ceremony earlier this week.
He works at Queensland’s Griffith University and has also served as Director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research for ten years.
Prof Mackay-Sim has been described as a “world-renowned trailblazer in cell transplantation”, who has paved the way for “innovative research on repairing damaged spinal cords to return the gift of movement to paralysed people”.
His work led to the “historic” breakthrough for Darek Fidyka in 2014.
Fidyka, from Eastern Europe, thought he had no hope of recovery after being stabbed.
But he underwent treatment on his spinal cord using olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) taken from part of his nervous system and has learned to walk and even drive again. OECs are similar to stem cells in that they can continually regenerate themselves – the only part of the nervous system able to do so.
Speaking after the successful surgery, Professor Geoffrey Raisman of University College London, said: “We believe that this procedure is the breakthrough which, as it is further developed, will result in a historic change in the currently hopeless outlook for people disabled by spinal cord injury.”