Alan Mackay-Sim is a professor at Griffith University. He is a retired biomedical scientist and he helped a quadriplegic man walk again. It was an internationally significant achievement that earned him the title of Australian of the Year in 2017.

Professor Mackay-Sim spent his life dedicated to stem cell research. This lead to life-changing advances in treatment for people with spinal cord injuries. He started researching in the 1980s and 20 years of hard work later he was able to run the world’s first successful human clinical trial in Brisbane.


He looked at how nerve cells in the nose regenerate and pioneered a way to safely apply that same regenerative process to damaged spinal cords. Doctor Karl Kruszelnicki, who regularly does science talkback on ABC’s Triple J radio program, explains it in more detail in this video.

“The scientific equivalent of the moon landing”

According to ABC News Professor Mackay-Sim played a major role in the world’s first successful restoration of mobility in Darek Fidyka in 2014, giving hope to thousands of people.

“Mr Fidyka had been paralysed from the chest down after a knife attack. He then went on to walk again after groundbreaking surgery overseas,” it published.

“That feat has been described as the scientific equivalent to the moon landing. Without the work done by Professor Mackay-Sim, this would not have been possible.”

The BBC reported that as a result of the procedure Mr Fidyka regained feeling and muscle control in the region directly beneath where he received a stabbing injury.

“I can tell that sensation is coming back and I am getting stronger. A year ago I would not have been able to ride a tricycle. Now I can feel each muscle and each press of the foot on the pedals,” Mr Fidyka said in an article published last year.

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Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, Director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research

What’s next for Professor Mackay-Sim?

He will spend the next year fulfilling his duties as Australian of the Year. He will oversee several research projects at Griffith University. These projects aim to find ways to use stem cells to treat conditions such as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

In his acceptance speech Professor Mackay-Sim also talked about using the time to raise awareness about important scientific work and why it needs more financial support.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the importance of research on spinal cord injury and brain diseases and…new treatments using stem cells and cell transplantation, undreamed of 20 years ago,” Professor Mackay-Sim said.

“We must, as Australians, prioritise our spending so that we can afford not only to look after the disabled and the diseased in our community but to look at future radical treatments that will reduce future health costs.

“As a nation, we must be part of this. It is important to invest in young scientists and give them great careers. Researchers need a long view, much longer than the political horizon,” he said.