Researcher’s ‘atlas’ project opens a world of discovery

13 May 2015

Associate Professor Christine Wells from The University of Queensland has won a $50,000 prize for leadership in stem cell research.

Dr Wells, from UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, is revolutionising the way stem cell researchers and bioinformaticians share information and interact in this rapidly growing field.

“What’s really exciting is that we’ve shown with stem cell science how making good quality data available, easy to use and shareable can bring experts together, fast-track research and lead to major discoveries,” Dr Wells said.

The National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia presented Dr Wells with one of two Metcalf prizes, named for the late Professor Donald Metcalf, AC, an internationally renowned Australian expert on haematopoiesis or blood cell formation, who died late last year.

Dr Wells is recognised as a pioneer in genomics – the study of the structure and function of an organism’s genome – and its role in immunity and stem cell biology.

She discovered the function of several genes that help fight infection and regulate inflammation.

Dr Wells leads the Stemformatics initiative – an online encyclopaedia of detailed scientific information on how thousands of different genes shape people – putting vital data at the fingertips of stem cell researchers and their cross-disciplinary collaborators.

This has enabled the discovery of a new type of “pluripotent” stem cell – cells that can give rise to any type of cell – and only the second type that can be grown in the lab from adult tissues.

“I work on what we call ‘atlas’ projects that effectively map and make available detailed information about how different genes are expressed as stem cells divide and specialise,” Dr Wells said.

The Stemformatics team collates high-quality data from around the world and makes it easy for generalist scientists to use. 

Researchers can look up genes or different cell types and access a huge volume of data to explore how they work.

“This allows multiple minds from different disciplines to interrogate a veritable goldmine of information, building ‘rules’ or benchmarks for cell behaviour, spotting trends and sometimes unearthing major discoveries,” Dr Wells said.

Dr Wells is involved in the international Functional Annotation of the Mammalian genome (FANTOM) consortium with the RIKEN institute in Japan.

She contributes findings from her research group’s work into the networks of genes that influence stem cell function and immune activation.

Her group also provides FANTOM with high-quality neural (brain) stem cell libraries.

Dr Wells will use her Metcalf Prize to expand Stemformatics as a vital piece of research infrastructure for the worldwide stem cell research community.

“This will allow researchers to interrogate their own data more deeply, compare it with the data of other researchers, gain new insights and perhaps even discover other classes of stem cells with therapeutic potential,” she said.

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