QEI at the cutting edge of stem cell research

06 Jul, 2016

Dr Allison Sutherland Senior Scientist at the Queensland Eye Institute immediately garners respect from all who meet her. Quietly spoken and with a clear goal, Allison is pursuing an exciting stem-cell research project. Working in collaboration with talented ophthalmologist, Dr Brendan Cronin, their aim is to develop a novel Placental Mesenchymal Stem/Stromal Cell (P-MSC) treatment system to alleviate the suffering caused by Sjögren’s Syndrome.

Sjögren’s Syndrome is a relatively common autoimmune disease that mainly affects the eyes and salivary glands, but can affect different parts of the body. Immune system cells, called lymphocytes, and autoantibodies attack the body’s moisture-producing glands. This results in dryness of the mouth, eyes or other tissues. The mucus membranes of the nose and vagina can dry out and internal organs (including kidneys, intestines, lungs, heart and liver) may become inflamed. The structures of the circulatory and nervous systems can also be affected. There is currently no cure for this disease that mainly affects women.

Dr Sutherland, like many scientists, is skilled in diverse areas, reflecting the need in our current research environment for cross-discipline skilling. In Allison’s case she combined an undergraduate degree with honours in physics and biomedical science with a PhD in cardiothoracic surgical pathology, postdoctoral training in molecular oncology and transplant medicine, and a Masters qualification in biomedical engineering. Allison is a specialist in medical/clinical research and development, where she is highly sought after.

Allison was drawn to her current project after learning about the cutting-edge research being done at the Queensland Eye Institute in the final years of studies in biomedical engineering. Ophthalmology research is constantly at the leading edge of many medical breakthroughs, partly due to the eye being a closed system, almost like a ‘mini brain’.

Researchers understand a great deal about how different parts of the eye interact and have developed excellent models that accurately reflect disease states. The first stem-cell product on the market was produced by Italian research scientist, Prof Graziella Pellegrini and her team, The Holoclar® system uses stem cells to repair moderate to severe limbal stem cell deficiency. Limbal stem cells are located in a part of the eye called the limbus, which is found at the border between the sclera (white part of the eye) and the cornea (clear front part of the eye).

Dr Sutherland’s work with Placental Mesenchymal Stem/Stromal Cells and genomic diagnostic medicine is captivating. Using stem cells to control the immune system has produced promising results and Dr Sutherland and her colleagues are now keen to begin clinical trials. They are currently raising funds to commence the trials within the next six months. All going well the treatment may be commercially available within the next five to seven years.

Although Dr Sutherland is working on a treatment for Sjögren’s Syndrome, she believes that her results may benefit sufferers of other autoimmune diseases.

We wish Dr Sutherland, Dr Cronin and the whole team behind the research all the very best and look forward to following their progress.



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