Science Portraits: biologists – Phong Nguyen, developmental biologist

11 Jan,2016

Science Portraits: biologists – Phong Nguyen, developmental biologist

As published in Cosmos Magazine, a portrait of three young scientists, featuring ARMI’s Young Scientist Dr Phong Nguyen.

Read below to discover a science portrait of his research career thus far, his work with zebrafish and blood stem cells, and the impact to hope for in the area of leukaemia.

Phong Nguyen is studying blood stem cells. Photo: Peter Tarasiuk

Phong Nguyen has had a life of firsts. The first-generation Australian was the first in his family to go to university. While  there, he was part of a team that was the first to uncover a mechanism by which an embryo starts to form its first blood cells. And now, in the first year after his PhD, that work has snared him a share in the 2015 Eureka Prize for Scientific Research.

Born in Melbourne to Vietnamese parents, Nguyen always loved reading and science. While working on his PhD at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University, he studied mutant zebrafish. He and his colleagues noticed one type that had several times the normal population of “blood stem cells” – the reservoir from which animals make new blood cells throughout their life.

From the mutant fish, Nguyen and colleagues identified a gene responsible for forming “helper cells” in the embryo. By means of an unknown mechanism they attach to developing stem cells, turning them into blood stem cells. Understanding the process could have huge implications for leukaemia and other blood diseases.
“Imagine if you could cultivate a patient’s stem cells … grow them into blood stem cells, then pop them back in their body,” he says. “Cure for leukaemia” might even join his list of firsts one day.

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