Alan Mackay-Sim, the scientist whose miracle made a paraplegic walk again, named Australian of the Year

A biomolecular scientist whose groundbreaking research led to the first successful restoration of mobility in a quadriplegic man has been named 2017 Australian of the Year.

The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, presented Mackay-Sim with the award at a ceremony at parliament house in Canberra on Wednesday night.

Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim led the world’s first clinical trial using nasal cavity cells to treat spinal cord injuries. The findings from that trial led to world-first surgery on a paralysed man, Darek Fidyka, in 2014. Fidyka was able to walk again with the assistance of a frame after the procedure.

Professor Mackay-Sim started off his Australian of the Year acceptance speech by wishing his “seven new best friends” — the other finalists — were with him. “I’m sure the only difference between us is my moustache,” he said.

He discussed the importance of research on spinal cord injuries, rare brain diseases, the therapeutic futures of stem cells and cell transplantation in his speech

“We must, as Australians, prioritise our spending so that we can afford not only to look after the disabled and the diseased in our community, but to look at future radical treatments that will reduce future health costs,” he said.

“As a nation, we must be part of this and we must invest in young scientists and give them great careers. Researchers need a long view, much longer than the political horizon.”

The Senior Australian of the Year was named as Sister Anne Gardiner AM from the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory. The 85-year-old was recognised for devoting 62 years to the Tiwi community by supporting and promoting its culture and working to preserve its language.

Young Australian of the Year went to 26-year-old South Australian fashion designer Paul Vasileff, for achieving international success in the fashion world from his hometown of Adelaide, while Victorian woman Vicki Jellie was named Australia’s Local Hero.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull awards Australian of the Year Alan Mackay-Sim. Photo: Jordan Hayne/ABC News

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull awards Australian of the Year Alan Mackay-Sim. Photo: Jordan Hayne/ABC News

Professor Mackay-Sim is a global authority on the human sense of smell and the biology of nasal cells.

Now retired, Professor Mackay-Sim, who was also the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research’s director, has championed the use of stem cells to understand the biological bases of brain disorders and diseases including schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

His research has already identified differences in nerve cell regeneration in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that give a better understanding of how those diseases develop.

Winners of the 2017 Australian AUSTRof the Year Awards

Australian of the Year: Queensland’s Professor Alan Mackay-Sim

The biomolecular scientist is an international leader in stem cell research and in 2014, his research played a central role in the world’s first successful restoration of mobility in a quadriplegic man.

Senior Australian of the Year: Northern Territory’s Sister Anne Gardiner

Sr Anne has spent 62 years helping the people of the Tiwi Islands, working as principal of the local primary school and establishing community clubs, a cafe, op shop and museum.

Young Australian of the Year: South Australia’s Paul Vasileff

An international fashion designer, Mr Vasileff’s designs have been worn by models on international runways and celebrities on the red carpet of the Oscars, all while operating his business from South Australia.

Australia’s Local Hero: Victoria’s Vicki Jellie

After her husband died of cancer in 2008, Ms Jellie’s campaigning and fundraising secured $30 million for a new cancer treatment centre which opened in Warrnambool in 2016.