Brisbane scientist honoured for ground-breaking discoveries

16 MARCH 2023

The late Alan Mackay-Sim – 2017 Australian of the Year – gave hope to the 12,000 Australians living with spinal injuries. Here, in this feature from the archives, we pay tribute to his outstanding legacy.

Pioneering research from Brisbane scientist Alan Mackay-Sim has been described as the scientific equivalent of landing on the moon.

In 2002, after decades of research, Professor Mackay-Sim proved that the spinal cord could be safely regenerated thanks to the cells in our nose called the autologous olfactory ensheathing cells.

“We take these olfactory ensheathing cells and grow them in a dish for a month or six weeks until we have enough of them and then inject them into the spinal cord of the patient around the area of injury,” he said.

Originally from NSW, Professor Mackay-Sim set up the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research within the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery.

It was this job that lured him to Brisbane but it was Griffith University, the facilities available to him, his team and the city itself that convinced him to stay.

“You can do biology here in Brisbane that you can’t do anywhere else in Australia because of the superior facilities we have,” he said. “That is really bringing a boom to our stem cell research and drug discovery.”

Professor Mackay-Sim’s work has been the catalyst for some amazing developments in the field of injury recovery.

After decades researching the cell biology of nose tissue Mackay-Sim completed the world’s first human clinical trial proving that it was safe and effective to use the cells from the nose to repair human spinal cord injuries. He referred to his breakthrough as “phase one” in a long journey to get from the lab and into clinical use.

The next step was when a team from the Cambridge University’s Stem Cell Institute applied this concept to cure spinal injury in dogs.

In 2014 a team of British and Polish researchers successfully treated a patient with chronic spinal injury who then regained motor and sensory function.

As well as spinal cord injury, Professor Mackay-Sim has applied his research to understand causes of neurological diseases like Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia and hereditary spastic paraplegia.

Professor Mackay-Sim understood the importance of getting new treatments from the lab to patients as quickly as possible.

In light of the contribution he made to medical research, he was named as Australian of the Year in 2017, a position he used to promote science and STEM education to young kids and their families.

“Our new jobs are going to come out of science and technology and our ethical debates about a lot of new technologies or the effect of climate change, they will all need some kind of basic science,” he said.

“I think having a scientist as Australian of the Year is great because it really ups the street cred among school kids that science is cool and I’m really pleased that there are people relating to the science message.”

Professor Mackay-Sim reflected fondly on Brisbane, as the city where he and his wife started a family.

His work continues to provide hope and inspiration for researchers in Brisbane and around the world.

Scientist at Vaxxass Brisbane