2017 Australian of the Year, Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim.
2017 Australian of the Year, Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim.

Sunshine Coast scientist named Australian of the Year

A PIONEERING scientist whose work has led to groundbreaking advances in the treatment of spinal cord injuries has been named Australian of the Year.

Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, 65 was honoured in the Great Hall of Parliament House in Canberra last night.

The Griffith University academic, and Sunshine Coast resident, has led the way in the use of stem cells to repair spinal cord injuries and is an ambassador for the Gold Coast's heath and knowledge precinct.

The 65-year-old now-retired academic was lauded by his colleagues as an "inspirational scientist".

Until his retirement in 2015, Professor Mackay-Sims was the long-serving director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research at Griffith University and worked at both the Gold Coast and Nathan campus.

Australian of the Year Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim Biomedical scientist from Queensland Australian of the Year category Vicki Jellie, community fund raiser for Victoria Australia's Local Hero Category Paul Vasileff South Australian Fashion designer Young Australian of the Year category Sister Anne Gardiner, community Champion from Northern Territory Senior Australia of the Year category.
Australian of the Year Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim Biomedical scientist from Queensland Australian of the Year category Vicki Jellie, community fund raiser for Victoria Australia's Local Hero Category Paul Vasileff South Australian Fashion designer Young Australian of the Year category Sister Anne Gardiner, community Champion from Northern Territory Senior Australia of the Year category. Andrew Taylor

His research has also championed the use of stem cells to treat brain disorders and diseases such as schizophrenia and Parkinson's disease.

His clinical trials in 2002 played a key role in the world's first successful restoration of mobility in a quadriplegic man in 2014.

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Professor Mackay-Sims was forced to retire in 2015 after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable form of leukaemia.

Now living on the Sunshine Coast at Currumundi, the New Australian of the Year remains an "Emeritus Professor" and continues his close involvement in the Gold Coast's health and knowledge precinct, which takes in Griffith University and the Gold Coast University Hospital.

In a recent interview he said the position kept him busy and the title "means the university wants to hang on to you and you want to hang on to the university, but basically it means you're just one of the many volunteers in the world".

The professor, who has been married to his wife Lisa Peine for 33 years, said he was not comfortable with the idea of being on the shortlist for Australian of the Year.

"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," he 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. I'm not into celebrity."

British professor Geoffrey Raisman, who was part of Professor Mackay-Sims' 2014 surgery that allowed paralysed Polish firefighter Darek Fidyka to walk again, said the outcome was "more impressive than man walking on the moon".

PM Malcolm Turnbull with 2017 Australian of the Year — Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim at the Awards Ceremony in the Great Hall at Parliament House in Canberra.
PM Malcolm Turnbull with 2017 Australian of the Year — Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim at the Awards Ceremony in the Great Hall at Parliament House in Canberra. Kym Smith

A world first, it used cells from the nose to treat spinal cord injury, giving hope to thousands with the condition.

Professor Mackay-Sims is the first medical scientist to win the award since immunologist Ian Frazer in 2006 and the 12th to win the award for their efforts in the field of science and medicine.

He was chosen ahead of other nominations which included Victorian refugee advocate Paris Aristotle, WA mining manage, philanthropist and antislavery advocate Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest and child soldier turned criminal lawyer Deng Adut.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who presented the award, told nominees yesterday they represented "the things that make us so proud to be Australian".

Community fundraising champion, Vicki Jellie from Warrnambool in southwest Victoria, was also last night named Australia's Local Hero 2017.

Alan Mackay-Sim with Malcolm Turnbull.
Alan Mackay-Sim with Malcolm Turnbull. Andrew Taylor

Spurred on by the loss of her husband Peter to cancer in 2008, Ms Jellie was a driving force behind Peter's Project - a community group which help raise $30 million towards a cancer centre offering radiotherapy treatment for regional patients.

Octogenarian nun, Sr Anne Gardiner was awarded Senior Australian of the Year for her lifetime of effort connecting cultures and championing the power of communities on the Tiwi Islands.

Acclaimed South Australian fashion designer Paul Vasileff was named Young Australian of the Year.

The 26-year-old is a graduate from Milan's prestigious Europeo Istituto di Design and is now the brains behind couture label Paolo Sebastian.

News Corp Australia

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