Q&A With Australia-Bound Stem Cell Ace

Mark Berndt/University of Southern California

Martin Pera of the University of Southern California (USC) announced on 7 March that he will return to Australia in June to lead Stem Cells Australia (SCA), a new national stem cell consortium. SCA will replace the troubled Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC), where Pera served as research director before coming to USC in 2006. In 5 years as inaugural director of USC's Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, Pera built a stem cell program spanning basic research to clinical trials.

SCA will be administered by the University of Melbourne and funded to the tune of $20.7 million over 7 years by the Australian Research Council and $42.3 million from partner organizations. The consortium's members include Monash University, the University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales, the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, the Florey Neuroscience Institutes, and CSIRO.

Q: Why did you leave ASCC in 2006?

M.P.: I was frustrated, as were many of the scientists, at what we saw as an inadequate focus on the science. We weren't achieving the synergies that a national center should. The inherent problem was that the ASCC was a hybrid of a biotech and an academic organization and it proved difficult to get the balance right. In the last few years this was corrected.

Q: Why did you decide to move back to Australia?

M.P.: When an opportunity arose to help lead a new consortium in Australian stem cell research, it was a very attractive offer. On the other hand, we'd reached a milestone at USC. We'd built a stem cell program from scratch starting with the basic research and building up the translational side. At our Doheny Eye Institute in a CIRM-supported program, Professor Mark Humayun and David Hinton are planning to trial stem therapies for macular degeneration, and my colleague Michael Kahn has just initiated a phase I clinical trial of a drug for colorectal carcinoma that was developed using a stem cell-based screen.

Q: You've always loved the bench. Why did you move into management?

M.P.: It was an opportunity to build something larger; something that would outlast my own career. I've still kept my own lab going focusing on understanding what pluripotent stem cells really are, and the extrinsic signals that govern their self-renewal and differentiation. Back in Australia, the scientific leadership of SCA will be more shared and I hope to spend more of my time in the lab.

Q: When ASCC was founded in 2002, Australia had a lead in stem cell research. Not now. How will the country compete?

M.P.: Australia still has great strengths, many of them a legacy of the ASCC. I don't know too many other consortia which can integrate expertise in embryonic and tissue stem cell biology, tissue regeneration and repair, bioengineering and nanotechnology, materials science, genomics and bio-informatics. The purpose of this grant is to bring these groups together and set up a powerful framework for interdisciplinary research.