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Meet The New Australian Of The Year: Professor Alan Mackay-Sim

His work has been hailed as more impressive than the moon landing.

25/01/2017 3:57 PM AEDT | Updated 25/01/2017 8:57 PM AEDT
Australian Of The Year Awards
Alan MacKay-Sim's work is saving lives -- including his own.

Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim has been announced as the 2017 Australian of the Year.

The Queensland biomedical scientist's work doesn't have anything to do with the moon landing, but his work has been hailed as even more impressive.

On Wednesday night, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull presented Mackay-Sim with the award at Parliament House in Canberra. He takes the title from outgoing Australian of the Year, David Morrison.

If you haven't heard of Alan Mackay-Sim before, that is all about to change. Professor Mackay-Sim is a world authority on the human sense of smell. He has spent his career researching stem cells -- work which has led to groundbreaking advances in treating spinal cord injuries.

How are the two connected? Well, Mackay-Sim's research discovered how nasal cells can be used to repair damaged spinal cords.

In 2014, Professor Mackay-Sim's research played a role in the world's most successful restoration of mobility in a quadriplegic. This quadriplegic was Polish fighter Darek Fidyka.

One of the men involved in the surgery, British professor Geoffrey Raisman, said it was "more impressive than man walking on the moon."

But the Queensland biomedical scientist was humble then, as he remains now.

Before he was awarded with the Australian of the Year award, the Queenslander told The Courier Mail "I'm not into celebrity".

"Obviously it's a great recognition for a life's work for me and my team and all the people I've worked with over the years but then you wonder, well, gee, I'm just one scientist who's been plucked out," Mackay-Sim said.

"Somebody nominated me, somebody voted for me to put me in this position but I have this inner feeling, you know, there are lots of fantastic biomedical scientists out there."

As director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research, Mackay-Sim has further championed the use of stem cells to understand the biological bases of schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease and Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia.

Winners of the 2017 Australian of the Year Awards

Senior Australian of the Year: Sister Anne Gardiner AM of Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory.

Young Australian of the Year: Fashion designer and entrepreneur Paul Vasileff of Adelaide, South Australia.

Australia's Local Hero: Community fundraiser Vicki Jellie of Warrnambool, Victoria.

In 2015, the biomedical scientist was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of leukaemia -- called multiple myeloma -- and needed a stem cell transplant himself. He suffered kidney failure, lost more than 20 kilograms and nine centimetres in height.

"I feel well. You have side-effects from all the drugs but, you know, I'm lucky. Some people don't come out of the stem cell transplant and others have certain genetic markers, which means they'll die in the first year. I'm alive, so that's step one," Professor Mackay-Sim told The Courier Mail.

Now retired, the Queenslander is still emeritus Professor at Griffith University -- which he said is basically because he doesn't want to lose the university and they don't want to lose him.

"Basically it means you're just one of the many volunteers in the world."

And how lucky we are to have him.

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