2017 Australian of the Year
Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim, the world authority on the human sense of smell, has given hope to thousands of people around the world with spinal cord injuries. His research is being used to find drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia and other less common brain diseases.
The nose is one of the great wonders of the body that most of us take for granted. But not Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim.
From smelling a fresh brewed coffee in the morning to the smell of a Sunday roast, it’s the nose that provides one of our greatest senses.
For the 2017 Australian of the Year, it was the cells within the nose that provided one of the greatest opportunities for helping paralysed people to walk again, and to understand a range of other conditions.
Professor Mackay-Sim’s sense of wonder and intrigue about the nerve cells in the nose and how they regenerate sparked his life-changing research.
The nasal sensory neurons live and die throughout our life, yet the growing neurons make the right brain connections to communicate what it is we are smelling, despite the fact that these new neurons may have never encountered that odour before.
The new neurons are made by stem cells. It’s their regenerative property that is at the heart of the Griffith University professor’s remarkable research. The stem cells also make special support cells (called “olfactory ensheathing cells”) that assist the sensory neurons to regrow into the brain.
The world authority on the human sense of smell has given hope to thousands of Australians and people around the world with spinal cord injuries.
Professor Mackay-Sim conducted the first phase of clinical trials showing it was safe to take olfactory ensheathing cells out of the nose, grow them in the laboratory and transplant them into the injured spinal cord in people with paraplegia, paving the way for the ongoing work being done in the study and development of cell transplantation.
Professor Mackay-Sim has spear-headed the use of stem cells from patients to understand complex disorders including schizophrenia and is using them to find drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia.
“The good thing is they’re like The Magic Pudding — you grow them, you take some away to use and they’ll grow again. You can work on the same cells for many years,” he said. “This allows you to dig deeply and understand brain diseases at a very fundamental level”.
The retired biomedical scientist, who is still overseeing several research projects at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, has also experienced the benefits of stem cell transplantation firsthand after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a rare, incurable form of leukaemia). He received a stem cell transplant almost two years ago.
Always humble, Professor Mackay-Sim wants the focus to remain on the medical teams and patients who’ve played an integral role in his ground-breaking stem-cell research.
“I feel I’m just somebody who’s come into the public eye, so I’m now in a position where I can advocate for scientists and all the hard and important work they’re doing,” he said.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the importance of research on spinal cord injury and less common brain diseases.”