Personal profile


Using medical and networking skills to put research into practice

With interests ranging from bones to babies and early IVF involvement, Professor Graham Jenkin is a busy man who likes to get things done. He's guiding research into antioxidant and stem cell therapies for at-risk babies, working with Mesoblast Ltd to commercialise a stem cell treatment for damaged backs and using his IVF expertise to help endangered species.

As an honorary professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, holder of a personal chair and deputy director of the Ritchie Centre at the Monash Institute of Medical Research (MIMR), clearly Graham has form.

He describes himself as a "Jack of all trades and master of none", which is, of course, not true. He's a master of reproductive physiology - his specialty - and networking.

"I love my research," he says, "but I realise that it has to have translation. So, networking within Monash and outside to bring in commercial organisations is very important."

Graham's networking talents were recognised in 2009 when he won the Vice Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Innovation and Collaboration in Research with Industry.

He was honoured for his work with biomedical company Mesoblast, founded by Monash medical graduate Sylviu Itescu (now a listed Australian company), which is working with a diverse team that Graham put together to perfect an adult stem cell treatment for damaged spinal disks.

The work involves Monash engineers and CSIRO scientist Jerome Werkmeister, who are creating a biodegradable matrix, or scaffold, on which to grow cartilage from mesenchymal progenitor cells (MPC), developed by Mesoblast.

"The trick is to get a matrix that is strong enough to keep two vertebrae apart, while cartilage forms, but then able to degrade in a specific way," he says.

The MPC cells are derived from adult stem cells, found in bone marrow and fat, which typically turn into cartilage and then bone. Graham's team is getting them to stop before the bone stage, just as they've become tough but flexible enough for disk repair.

Their treatment also uses patented sound acoustic wave (SAW) technology, developed by Monash mechanical engineers Professor James Friend and Associate Professor Leslie Yeo, to force MPCs deep into scaffolds to get stronger and more even repairs.

Separating collapsed disks while cartilage grows takes the pressure off crushed or pinched spinal nerves permanently. This acutely painful condition is typically treated by fusing disks together, which can put more pressure on adjacent disks and require repeat surgery.

Scaffolds and MPCs could repair damaged knee and hip joints in the future, Graham says, bringing relief to injured athletes, accident victims, elderly people or anyone with damaged or degenerated joints.

The work on spinal disc repair is testament to Graham's ability to network and create the kind of multidisciplinary teams needed to solve complex medical problems.

He earlier used his networking skills to help IVF pioneer Alan Trounson set up the Monash spin-out Maccine, now a Singapore-based medical research company.

Graham says winning commercial backing is often essential for putting research into practice.

'We get government grants but not always enough to take research to pre-clinical and clinical trials,' he says. 'They cost big money so major support is more likely to come from industry.'

But government-funded research will always be necessary, he says, and cites the example of Ritchie Centre researcher Dr Suzanne Miller, who's using the natural hormone and antioxidant melatonin to reduce brain and other organ damage in fetuses and newborns.

'You can't patent melatonin,' he says, 'only its use. But use patents are difficult to uphold and fraught with problems. If we want to take that treatment to clinical trial, it's very difficult to get a commercial company interested because there's nothing in it for them.'

Graham used his IVF background to help MIMR colleagues set up and run their 'frozen zoo', which keeps animal reproductive material on ice until needed, such as when a species, like the northern hairy-nosed wombat, faces extinction.

'If it's reproductive material, such as sperm or eggs, it could be used for IVF processes,' he says. 'If it's non-reproductive material, there's the possibility of cloning.'

Recently, Graham helped Ritchie Centre Director Euan Wallace set up the Victorian Consortium for Cell-Based Therapies, which brings together 25 local groups from industry, academia and government to spread the cost and benefits of research in this cutting-edge field.

He also helped establish the Australia-China Centre for Excellence in Stem Cells, which should lead to large-scale clinical trials that put research into practice sooner, which is clearly Graham's driving aim.

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 2 - Zero Hunger
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being

Collaborations and top research areas from the last five years

Recent external collaboration on country/territory level. Dive into details by clicking on the dots or