Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank: The Stem Cell Revolution

Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank 2015: The stem cell revolution - lessons and imperatives for Australia

Who is Theo?

When I first saw the call for nominees for the Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank … to be honest, I had never heard of it. Now that I have participated in the think tank, without a doubt I feel it was one of the top experiences of my career so far.

The Australian Academy of Science has been running think tanks since 2002, supported by the Theo Murphy (Australia) Fund since 2009. Theo Murphy is a mysterious fellow, an Australian businessman who left a generous bequest to the UK’s Royal Society. In Australia, the money funds two early- and mid-career researcher events, the Theo Murphy Frontiers of Science symposium and the Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank. Collectively, they bring the best young scientists together with experts in their field. While the former aims to stimulate interdisciplinary research, the latter aims to develop networks and innovative solutions for nationally significant sciences.

Driving the national development of sciences: stem cells 2015

In the words of the President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Andrew Holmes, the think tanks ‘enable some of Australia’s brightest young scientists to engage in fresh thinking about a fundamental issue for our nation’s future, and to develop networks that will enrich their careers’. From these discussions, recommendation reports are produced to inform policy development by the Australian Government. The UNCOVER initiative was a result of a previous think tank and a great example of the influence that can be exerted through this program.

The topics for the think tanks are selected from suggestions that demonstrate the importance of the field to the future of Australians. Previous topics include climate change, agriculture, population growth and brain research. You can nominate a topic in your field for the next one!

This year, the development of Australia’s capabilities in stem cell research was selected as a national priority for the think tank.

The stem cell revolution: Lessons and imperatives for Australia

The think tank was separated into four main issues identified as critical in the timely development and application of stem cell research, and chaired by experts in the field. The issues were:

  1. platform science: access of Australian stem cell researchers to critical infrastructure and technological advances
  2. clinical translation: driving evidence-based clinical application of cellular therapies in Australia
  3. public perspectives and expectations; political and regulatory landscape: developing sufficient regulation, guidelines and educational initiatives
  4. current and future directions for stem cell science: where have we come from and where do we need to aim for?

Participants were separated into the groups based on their interest and expertise. Over two days we had the opportunity to discuss issues and develop solutions along with field experts and other up-and-coming EMCRs. Each group came up with a number of recommendations, which are being written up and will be launched in November 2015.

I feel like I developed 10 years of industry-relevant knowledge in three days.

From a personal perspective, I particularly liked the group sessions where I got to sit in a room with 12 of Australia’s top academic and industry stem cell experts to discuss solutions. With so few people, and such a high calibre of experience and expertise, it was a fantastic learning opportunity and a great platform for getting your ideas out. Everyone’s contributions were not only encouraged, but valued. There were also open-floor whole-group sessions, which provided probably the best possible summary of the issues in my research field, presented by over 60 of Australia’s leading academic, clinical and commercial experts. The critical discussion of solutions in these whole-group sessions was also wildly informative and demonstrated a diversity of opinion. All in all, I feel like I developed 10 years of industry-relevant knowledge in three days.

As an EMCR, it was great to see the Academy recognise and select stem cell research as fundamental to the future of our country. I can’t wait to see the finalised recommendations, and the response of the Australian Government to our ideas for realising the social and economic benefits of this important emerging field.

It was interesting that reflective discussions over the three-day think tank centred around ‘Australia-specific’ solutions and identified many issues that are directly relevant to all areas of science. These included a dearth of funding or venture capital, a small population, and a critical lack of interaction between the skill sets of academics and industry in forming essential translational and product development pathways. It was recognised that Australia is consistently producing world-class innovations in research, and that urgent action is particularly needed in the translational ‘product development phase’ to turn these innovations into clinical and commercial solutions to achieve returns on research investments. These are issues common to many fields which need government attention.

I was honoured to be involved in this process and I suggest that you look out for a call for topic nominations (every three years) and nominate your nationally relevant field for future Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tanks. I also heartily recommend that all EMCRs keep their eyes peeled for a think tank in their field and make sure they apply to participate. This is an opportunity you don’t want to miss!

Heather Main
Senior Scientist
Genea Biocells

EMCR Pathways Issue 5 October 2015

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