Vale: Griffith farewells Alan Mackay-Sim, a titan of science

Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim AM in the GRIDD laboratory

Griffith University is paying tribute to one of its finest in Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim AM known to many as a pioneering stem-cell research scientist and former recipient of the Australian of the Year award.

Professor Mackay-Sim passed away early in the new year at the age of 71.

In 1987, Professor Mackay-Sim came to Griffith University with a research focus on the olfactory organ responsible for the sense of smell.

Professor Emeritus Mackay-Sim’s ‘personal object’ on display at the Australian National Museum.

It took 20 years for his research to lead to a successful world-first human clinical trial in Brisbane with his team demonstrating that transplanting therapeutic nasal cells into the spinal cord was safe.

Professor Mackay-Sim’s research leadership was celebrated when he was named Australian of the Year in 2017.

Graduating with a PhD from Macquarie University in 1980, Professor Mackay-Sim embarked on a teaching and research career overseas where he held roles at the University of Wyoming before coming home and joining the Physiology Department at University of Adelaide.

Upon his move to Griffith, Professor Mackay-Sim held many roles including the inaugural Director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research and Deputy Director, Eskitis Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies (now known as the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery or GRIDD).

Throughout his research career, Professor Mackay-Sim made significant contributions to our understanding of the human brain and its functions. He was interested in the role of nasal cells and how they interacted with neurons to support brain function. His research helped shed light on the role of these cells in conditions such as damaged spinal cords, multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia, Motor Neurone Disease and led to the development of new treatments for these conditions.

Professor Mackay-Sim received numerous awards and accolades for his work, including a Member of the Order of Australia (AM), Queenslander of the Year in 2003 and 2017 (as well as Australian of the Year), a French Government Scientific Fellowship in 1991, the Neil Hamilton Fairley Medal (2018) for outstanding contribution to medicine, the Australasian Neuroscience Society Distinguished Achievement Award (2017) for outstanding career contribution to neuroscience, and he was a recipient of a prestigious Eureka Science Prize in 2011. He continued to serve on numerous health advisory boards after his academic retirement.

Professor James st John, who collaborated for many years with Professor Mackay-Sim, said he was blessed to be taught and work closely with the very best in research excellence.

Professor Mackay-Sim AM and wife Lisa in 1983 in North Queensland.

“Alan will be remembered as an exceptional mentor, irrespective of the experience level of those around him. From undergraduate students to seasoned academics he was always willing to generously share his own research and life experiences.”

“Alan was also passionate about engaging with people in the community and was an inspiring speaker and champion of research and supporting our next generation of scientists.”

Another of his close research collaborators Distinguished Professor Vicky Avery praised the highly innovative and creative research by Professor Mackay-Sim, which contributed to drug discovery efforts across multiple neurological diseases.

“Alan’s approach to use patient derived stem cells was truly innovative, providing a platform for drug discovery which can, and is being applied to numerous diseases. He was such an inspirational man, full of compassion and vision.”

Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim AM is part of the Queen’s Baton Relay for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games

Dr Alex Cristino from GRIDD said Professor Mackay-Sim was much bigger than his outstanding scientific accomplishments and accolades.

“Alan was a contemporary ‘Renaissance’ man who embraced all knowledge and devoted his professional life to science but was also a passionate cyclist and daring hang glider in his early days. Our engaging and enriched conversations will be deeply missed,” Dr Cristino said.

“He was a trailblazer in the fields of neurological diseases and stem cell research who leaves an outstanding legacy and one in which I will be very proud and honoured to carry on.”

Professor Mackay Sim is survived by his wife, Lisa, and two children.