Australian of the Year named as biomedical scientist Alan Mackay-Sim

World-leading researcher honoured for a lifetime of work with stem cells and the regeneration of the nervous system

A biomolecular scientist whose groundbreaking research led to the first successful restoration of mobility in a quadriplegic man has been named 2017 Australian of the Year.

Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim led the world’s first clinical trial using nasal cavity cells to treat spinal cord injuries. The findings from that trial led to world-first surgery on a paralysed man, Darek Fidyka, in 2014. Fidyka was able to walk again with the assistance of a frame after the procedure.

The achievement was described at the time by a British professor of neural regeneration, Geoffrey Raisman, as “more impressive than man walking on the moon”.

The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, presented Mackay-Sim with the award at a ceremony at parliament house in Canberra on Wednesday night.

Mackay-Sim, 65, is a global authority on the human sense of smell and the biology of nasal cells, as well as the regeneration of the nervous system. He is the former director of the national centre for adult stem cell research at Brisbane’s Griffith University, and throughout his career he championed the use of stem cells to understand the biological causes of brain disorders such as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

Now retired, Mackay-Sim was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukaemia two years ago, which is incurable.

In a profile piece published by the Courier-Mail last week, Mackay-Sim said: “There are lots of fantastic biomedical scientists out there.”

“I’m not into celebrity,” he told the newspaper. “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.”

The Senior Australian of the Year was named as Sister Anne Gardiner AM from the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory.

The 85-year-old was recognised for devoting 62 years to the Tiwi community by supporting and promoting its culture and working to preserve its language.

The Young Australian of the Year was named as 26-year-old fashion designer and international business entrepreneur Paul Vasileff from Adelaide.

Vasileff stitched his first dress with the help of his grandmother when he was 11. He graduated from Milan’s prestigious Europeo Istituto di Design and runs the couture label Paolo Sebastian, operating his business from South Australia and employing local staff to create garments that have been featured on international runways.

And Vicki Jellie from Warrnambool in Victoria was named Australia’s Local Hero for 2017.

After her husband Peter died of cancer in 2008, Jellie found his plans for a local cancer fundraising event. His dream had been to raise enough money to bring radiotherapy services to regional south-west Victoria so that other patients would not be forced to spend weeks away from home travelling to Melbourne for radiotherapy treatment, as he had been forced to do.

Jellie raised $5m from the local community and secured $25m from state and federal governments. In July last year the South West Regional Cancer Centre opened its doors thanks to her efforts.

The chairman of the National Australia Day Council, Ben Roberts-Smith, said the winners had made valuable contributions to medical science and their communities. “They remind us to dream big, work hard and believe in what you’re doing,” he said.

The outgoing Australian of the Year, retired army chief David Morrison, used his final speech in the role to highlight issues of equality, including domestic violence and what he described as an “unacceptable” gender pay gap.

“We have, still, intangible barriers that deny too many people the chance to reach their potential based on the most questionable of criteria – their gender, their age, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation or whether they are judged by others as able-bodied or right-minded,” he said.

“But my conclusion after this tumultuous year is that we as a nation are making progress. It’s never fast or far-reaching enough. But it is being made.”


Melissa Davey

The GuardianTramp

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