Dr Rod Rietze, head of the Queensland Brain Institute's (QBI) Laboratory for Neural Stem Cell Biology, is hoping those stem cells may soon unlock the secrets to healing the brain as well.
First he has to find out what they actually do - something that has been notoriously hard to do in the past. Dr Rietze is a finalist in the UQ Foundation Research Excellence Awards, to be announced tomorrow as a highlight of UQ Research Week 2005. He is working on a project with a novel approach to track neural stem cells in vivo.
"Identifying neural stem cells is like finding a needle in a haystack," Dr Rietze said.
"The tried and true method is to look for particular markers on the outside of the cell, but this is a long and laborious process.
"What we are doing is looking at a distinguishing attribute of stem cells, which is that they are relatively quiescent, or don't divide much in relation to other cells.
"This will enable us to determine, for the first time, the precise location and prevalence of neural stem cells in situ, which in turn will allow us to determine more rapidly and accurately the role played by stem cells in the mammalian brain and spinal cord under normal conditions and following injuries."
He said at the moment, scientists rely on tissue culture methods to guess what is happening inside the body, but this new approach will mean they will be able to track the cells while they are working in the body, a major leap forward.
"Defining the role and regulation of neural stem cells in the ad ult brain will undoubtedly revolutionise our understanding of how the brain responds to its environment," Dr Rietze said.
"This will allow us to ultimately harness its regenerative capacity to bring about new and effective treatments for conditions caused by trauma, disease, or even normal ageing."
Dr Rietze's interest in neural stem cells began while he was studying zoology at the University of Calgary in Canada, and it was there he "got fascinated with the complexity and elegance of the brain".
He continued in Calgary completing a Masters degree in the lab which first reported the existence of adult neural stem cells, then worked for two years at NeuroSpheres Ltd, a biotech company focused on using stem cells to repair the brain, before coming to Australia to do his PhD under Professor Perry Bartlett at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne.
Dr Rietze followed Professor Bartlett to UQ when the QBI was established in 2003, where an innovative scientific environment has since been created thanks to having a high concentration of experts who specialise in different aspects of neuroscience research.
"It is great to have so many people working on different aspects of the same problem, creating a unique synergy that is already producing results," he said.