Metcalf Prize awarded to WEHI stem cell researcher

WEHI researcher and clinician Dr Ashley Ng has been named a winner of the 2022 Metcalf Prize for Stem Cell Research, in recognition of his pioneering work with stem cells to fight blood cancers.

Awarded by the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia, the Metcalf Prizes are named for WEHI luminary, the late Professor Donald Metcalf AC.

At a glance

  • Clinician-researcher Dr Ashley Ng awarded 2022 Metcalf Prize for Stem Cell Research
  • The $55,000 prize will support research with stem cells to find treatments for blood cancers
  • Metcalf Prizes named in honour of Professor Donald Metcalf AC, regarded as the ‘father of modern haematology’.

Dr Ashley Ng

Dr Ng is revealing how blood stem cells are controlled, and how they can go rogue, leading to blood cancers.

He has discovered how a protein known as ‘ERG’ underpins the healthy development of blood cells, but how it also plays a role in Down syndrome-associated leukaemia and a range of other blood cancers.

As a researcher at WEHI and a clinician at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Dr NG will use his $55,000 Metcalf Prize to advance his ideas from the laboratory into treatments for blood cancer and other blood diseases.

“Blood stem cells can form any cell of the blood system and they self-renew, so they are a source of endless supply,” he said.

“But blood cancers can also arise from these cells, and are responsible for three per cent of all deaths in Australia.”

Personal connection

Professor Donald Metcalf AC

Winning a Metcalf Prize is personal for Dr Ng, who had the opportunity to work in the late Professor Don Metcalf’s lab while studying for a Bachelor of Medical Science degree at the University of Melbourne.

It was during this time that he became interested in blood cells and blood disorders.

“Throughout his career Don was always encouraging early career researchers,” Dr Ng said.

“He was a great mentor and friend to me. So, I’m absolutely blown away by this award. It is very humbling, very emotional for me to receive this award.”

After gaining his BMedSci and his degree in medicine, Dr Ng did a further 10 years training to become a specialist haematologist and is currently a consultant in haematology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Peter McCallum Cancer Centre.

In 2008 he also returned to the lab, with a PhD at WEHI leading to postdoctoral work as clinician researcher in the areas of blood stem cells, immunology and leukaemia.

Regulating gene activity

A focus of his work has been Erg, a transcription factor or protein that regulates gene activity in the cell nucleus.

In fact, Erg works at the highest level of the regulatory hierarchy, controlling the activity of networks of other genes.

“Erg plays different roles in the development of different blood cell types,” he said.

“It is very important to what a blood cell becomes.

“It is absolutely required for the development of blood stem cells and critical to the development of the B cells, which are a major component of our immune system.”

Imbalances in Erg can also lead to blood cancers and other blood disorders.

Molecular map

Dr Ng’s Metcalf Prize research project will zero in on just how ERG has its impact.

With the help of colleagues at WEHI, he has developed tags that bind to Erg and will allow him to track where the molecule goes, with what other molecules it interacts, and the stem cell genes it controls.

It will also provide a molecular map of gene regulatory networks in blood stem and progenitor cells that will serve as a resource for researchers in the field.

Being a clinician as well as a researcher helps define the questions he wants to ask in the laboratory, Dr Ng says.

“All human disease has some sort of molecular basis. So, to understand and develop new treatments for disease, we need to know how it develops at a molecular level to identify the key players to control.

“While investigating molecular mechanisms may appear far from the clinic, we are living in an era of molecular medicine, where translating relevant findings to patients can proceed at an incredible pace.”

The 2022 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research will be formally presented at the Australasian Society of Stem Cell Research Annual Scientific Meeting on Wednesday 16 November.

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