The best of both worlds

In a world-first discovery, Barwon Health’s Associate Professor Mark Kirkland found a way to make beating heart cells from the stem cells of skeletal muscles. Ever since, the science and medical worlds’ eyes have followed the progress of the Geelong-based Director of Barwon Biomedical Research and his research teams.

Barwon Biomedical Research (BBR) was formed through the merger of Barwon Health’s Douglas Hocking Research Institute and the laboratory research component of the University of Melbourne’s Department of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences. Since the merger, the father-of-five has led groundbreaking research into cordblood stem cells from his Geelong base and the world is taking notice.

Associate Professor Kirkland is investigating the growth and use of cord blood-derived stem cells, and particularly the capacity of cord blood-derived cells to differentiate into other cell types such as heart muscle cells and insulin-producing (beta) cells.

“Cord-blood cells have a wide range of uses and lots of research from around the world has shown them to have significant therapeutic benefits for a number of conditions like cerebral palsy and type 1 diabetes,” Associate Professor Kirkland says. “I have a particular interest in cord-blood stem cells, and am currently working on ways of expanding cord blood stem cells for transplant and methods for converting adult stem cells into other types, such as heart cells and beta cells.”

Associate Professor Kirkland is also devising systems to develop an expansion device or kit that can be used to make more stem cells available for use. Despite there being millions of cord-blood stem cells in cord blood, there are only a limited number of stem cells available.

“Our main focus of work at the moment is concentrated on isolating stem cells from cord blood and using different techniques to increase the number of stem cells we can use,” Associate Professor Kirkland says. “We are hoping to go to pre-clinical studies into these expansion methods within two to three years.”

When he is not making groundbreaking discoveries, Associate Professor Kirkland has been able to enjoy a happy balance between work and home life with his wife and five sons. “Geelong is a perfect place to bring up a large family,” he says. “We live on two hectares of land only about 15 minutes from the town centre. You can’t do that in Melbourne unless you’re really, really rich. Land is more affordable so you can have that country lifestyle yet still live close by to world-class facilities and high-quality schools.

“And in terms of my work and the research community here, we are growing rapidly and have been given three major grants in the last year. We are leading research into areas like osteoporosis and bone disease; in fact Professor Geoff Nicholson is leading one of the largest population-based studies into osteoporosis, diabetes and metabolism from Barwon Biomedical Research.

“We are leading the way in many areas and, as we grow, we are developing stronger relationships and working closely with local and overseas collaborators, without having the bother of having to leave Geelong. Because the research community here is the size it is and connected the way it is through BioGeelong, you tend to know about the research being undertaken in your field as you are part of that group, which helps. It is an ideal set-up.”

BioGeelong is an industry-based network that has been formed to assist in growing the Geelong Region’s biotech capability and to maximise the opportunities being generated by Geelong’s biotech activities. It is made up of stakeholders including Barwon Health, Deakin University, Gordon Institute of TAFE, the CSIRO and the City of Greater Geelong.

“The research industry is growing very quickly in the region, and a result, we really do need to attract more quality researchers to the area,” Associate Professor Kirkland says. “All I can say is that living and working here in Geelong, we have the best of both worlds.”