Archbishop Fisher announces winner of $100,000 Adult Stem Cell Research Grant

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
9 Dec 2015

Associate Professor Nick Di Gerolamo of the University of New South Wales, recipient of the Archdiocese of Sydney's Adult Stem Cell Research Grant

Archbishop Anthony Fisher today announced that the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney's seventh $100,000 grant to support adult stem cell research has been awarded to Associate Professor Nick Di Girolamo of the University of New South Wales.  Prof Di Girolamo is one of Australia's outstanding young scientists and is working on a project to improve the success of a stem cell delivery system which restores eye health and sight in patients with debilitating corneal disease. 

Archbishop Fisher said he was delighted that the $100,000 grant would help to support such an important and promising research project. 

"The independent panel of scientific experts who assessed the applications noted that this project was likely to yield therapeutic applications in the near future," explained the Archbishop.   

"If Prof Di Girolamo's research is successful, it will make a valuable contribution to medical science and offer hope and healing to patients whose eye disease is amongst the most debilitating and most challenging to treat."  

Prof Di Girolamo said he was grateful for the support of the Archdiocese, which would allow his research program to further develop and refine a new and promising line of therapy. 

"I am honoured to be the recipient of such a prestigious grant," said Prof Di Girolamo. 

"Our research program is dedicated to healing sore eyes and restoring sight in patients with severe corneal disease that results in blindness." 

Prof Di Girolamo joins a distinguished group of Australian scientists who have previously been awarded this grant from the Archdiocese of Sydney "to pursue ethical, innovative and life-affirming research for the benefit of the human family", Archbishop Fisher said.    

Research using adult stem cells shows good ethics are no impediment to good science

Prof Di Girolamo's project was selected unanimously as the most outstanding of the applications.  The six finalists had to meet several criteria, including innovativeness, likelihood of therapeutic applications arising from the research, a track record of success in similar or related research, and demonstrated satisfaction of the highest international standards of scientific excellence, as well as adherence to Catholic Health Australia's Code of Ethical Standards.

Archbishop Fisher said that whilst the six finalists all reflected very high standards of scientific excellence, Prof Di Girolamo's project had clearly stood out. 

"The judges agreed that this project was scientifically sound, that it built upon Prof Di Girolamo's exceptional knowledge and skills in his area of research into corneal blindness, and that it had a high likelihood of success if funded." 

Prof Di Girolamo explains his project aims to improve outcomes for patients undergoing sight-saving stem cell therapy.  Using a marker he has recently discovered, stem cells from normal eyes will be identified and isolated in order to be transplanted into diseased eyes. 

"We recently tested a world's first therapy developed in my laboratory which utilises a contact lens to carry the patient's own stem cells to the affected cornea in a successful clinical trial," Prof Di Girolamo said.

"This award will allow us to better locate adult stem cells within the eye, and devise superior isolation and purification strategies to improve our transplantation technique, and develop new cutting-edge grafting approaches to help patients in Australia and around the world."

Past winners of the Archdiocese of Sydney grant have explored the potential of adult stem cells to assist in the treatment of Parkinson's disease (2003); the regeneration of skin after severe burns (2005); the treatment of stroke victims (2007); the regeneration of normal blood functioning for cancer sufferers (2009); improving the success of tissue transplantation (2011); and the treatment of leukaemia and other blood cell disease (2013).

Archbishop Fisher said it was important the Catholic Church shows its support for ethical medical research which is respectful of human life and which offers real hope to those who are suffering. 

"We are proud to support those who dedicate their lives to enhancing and saving the lives of others.  We believe that Prof Di Girolamo's project will help to save the sight of a significant group of patients who would otherwise descend into a world of darkness as their disease progressed."