Approximately 15,000 patients in Australia live with the severe consequences of cSCI, with approximately 350/400 new cases each year. The cost to patients and their families is immeasurable. The cost to the Australian health care system is approximately $2 billion per annum. Despite these deplorable costs, funding to find a cure for chronic spinal cord injury (based on NH&MRC figures 2000-2008) is less than one tenth that spent on other diseases such as cancer on a pro-rata basis to total health care costs.

StepAhead Australia is governed by a Board comprising the principal benefactors. The StepAhead Australia Board has appointed a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of internationally recognised scientists, biotechnologists and clinicians who are experts in the field.

StepAhead Australia will develop a communication strategy to maximise awareness of spinal cord injury amongst the community, media, governments, scientists, clinicians and biotechnologists, as to the current state of spinal cord injury repair.

History of StepAhead Australia

  • 1998 Founded as The Spinal Cord Society of Australia Inc
  • 1999 Implemented fund raising activities to support local research laboratories
  • 2000 Established the national Lions Australia Spinal Cord Fellowship
  • 2005 Established a National Scientific Advisory Panel
  • 2007 Recognised by the Department of Health and Aging as the peer group to conduct translational spinal cord injury research
  • 2007 Successful bid, two Victorian Neurotrauma Initiative projects (total $1.44 million over 3 years)
  • 2008 Reorganised as StepAhead Australia Ltd. with a focus on enabling clinical trials in chronic spinal cord injury
  • 2008-2009 Established an International Clinical Advisory Board
  • 2009 Established a research administrative office and translational research laboratory in the Centre for Clinical Neurosciences and Neurological Research at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne
  • 2014 Dr. Stephen Davies establishes Spinal Cord Regeneration Laboratory at the Florey
  • 2014 Prof. Donnan at Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, appointed as Spinal Cord Fellowship holder
  • 2015 Dog trials commence, 'Implantation of Neuronal Stem Cells to the Chronically Injured Spinal Cord,’ Professor Sam Long, Melbourne University
  • 2016 Dog trial concludes
  • 2016 LASCF support concludes for 'Development of Spinal Cord Matrix’ Drs Stephen Liversey and Kathy Traianedes, St. Vincents Laboratory, Melbourne
  • 2019 LASCF support concludes for Professor Donnan at the Florey Institute
  • 2019 SCI research program established at Monash University, AMREP, Melbourne
  • 2019 Prof. Terence O’Brien, Head of the Department of Neuroscience, Monash University, Neurology at the Alfred and Director of the Neurology Clinical Trial Facility AMREP, appointed as Spinal Cord Fellowship holder

Board of Directors

Dr George Owen

Dr Owen graduated in Medicine from Melbourne University in 1973. He completed his surgical Fellowship with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in Orthopaedic surgery in 1983. He was inducted into the Australian Orthopaedic Association in 1986, working overseas for two years before finally settling into public and private practice in Gippsland.

Previous appointments include Director of the Board of the Latrobe Regional Hospital, Medical Advisory Committee of both LRH and Maryvale Private Hospital, and Dean of the Medical School Latrobe Regional Hospital.

Currently he is Chairman of the Latrobe Hospital Senior Medical Staff Group and Chairman Department of Orthopaedic Surgery LRH. Dr Owen also holds appointments at West Gippsland Hospital and Gippsland Southern Health Leongatha.

With his wife he is as passionate about promoting targeted research to cure spinal cord paralysis and doing what is necessary to support and fund these objectives. He was able to present these aspirations to the Lions of Australia, gaining its acceptance as a National project of Lions, as well as establishing the Lions Spinal Cord Fellowship. These are designed to directly support and encourage scientists working in this field.

He was a recipient of the Lions International President’s Certificate of Appreciation Award 2013-2014, “In recognition of Distinguished Achievements in Fulfilling the Mission of Lions Clubs International”. In 2014, Dr Owen was also awarded a certificate of “Outstanding Services to the Community” by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

Barbara Owen

Barbara balances the full time care of her quadriplegic son, with running a productive beef farm and providing much of the passion and inspiration for SAA. 

After matriculating with Honours Barbara completed her nursing training at the Austin Hospital. She gained her midwifery certificate at the Royal Women’s Hospital before extensive travel around Europe. She worked as unit manager of the renal unit at Royal Perth Hospital, before a period of working as a nurse in remote Aboriginal communities in Queensland.

Mother of three boys she has given unflinching support to her husband’s busy orthopaedic practice.

Her position as Director and Secretary/Treasurer makes her the “glue” that keeps the organisation running.

Member of the Traralgon Lions Club and member of the Lions Australia Spinal Cord Fellowship Committee, she is instrumental in maintaining the strong financial support of the Lions Clubs of Australia.

Mrs Owen was a recipient of Lions International President’s Certificate of Appreciation Award 2013-2014, “In recognition of Distinguished Achievements in Fulfilling the Mission of Lions Clubs International”.

Nola Birch

Nola has spent 34 years involved with the disability sector. During this time she has worked in a number of organisations working directly with people studying from high school through to tertiary education and assisted people into the employment sector. Her roles have included advising and liaising across a number of private, government, and business sectors to achieve an equitable educational environment for students throughout the education system.

Nola’s interests have involved her in a number of industries throughout both her work and study life. After leaving school she studied and worked in a number of organisations in the photographic, graphic art, illustration, writing, advertising, marketing, publishing, and multimedia fields. Specialising in digital and database management, Nola has incorporated these skills and knowledge into a number of private, business, and government organisations involved in the areas of finance, science, health, and research. She has a strong interest in human research and was Administrative Secretary to the Human Ethics Committee at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research for several years.

Diane Cray

Diane graduated as a General Nurse at the Geelong Hospital and then completed her Midwifery training at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. After marriage and a period of time in Tasmania (still working in midwifery), Di and her husband returned to Victoria to live in Shepparton and this is where she was introduced to what was, at the time, the Motor Accidents Board, later the Transport Accident Commission, with a part-time position as Hospital Liaison Officer at Goulburn Valley Base Hospital.

After moving to Gippsland in 1982, Di initially worked for the Transport Accident Commission and then the Victorian Accident and Rehabilitation Council (later to become WorkSafe} travelling from Warragul to Bairnsdale on a weekly basis assisting injured workers (often with Spinal Cord  and Head Injuries) to transition back to the community.

After watching service providers for 10 years, and not always being impressed, Di started a home based care service based in Gippsland but later servicing clients in Melbourne and Bendigo.  This service was eventually purchased, in 2002, by a larger provider.   

In 2004 Di and a friend started a Spinal Cord and Head injury specific care service based in Melbourne and she retired from this in 2014.  During this time she saw firsthand the daily frustrations of living with a Spinal Cord Injury or Acquired Brain Injury so when she was introduced to Dr Stephen Davies’ work she was happy to support this in any way possible.

Di and her husband have 2 daughters - one living in Geelong the other in Sydney.

Tony Benbow OAM

Tony is a retired Banker of 39 years’ experience. He has held a number of senior positions in both Westpac Banking Corporation and Bankwest over his career covering areas of retail administration, financial control, risk management and investigations.

Tony has been a member of Lions Clubs International for over 30 years being a Past District Governor of District 201 V1 and Chairman of Lions Australia in 2007/8. He has held various roles in Leadership and Membership since being Council Chairman. He now holds the role of International Director and sits on the Board of the International Association representing Australian, New Zealand and Indonesian Lions.

Together with his Director responsibilities, he is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Lions House Foundation Inc., and Deputy Chairman and Victorian State Director for the Australian Lions Foundation Ltd.

For his involvement in community work through Lions and local organisations he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in the New Year’s Honours in January 2015.

Tony was the Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Spinal Cord Society of Australia Inc. prior to joining StepAhead Australia.

Scientific Advisory Board

Dr. Jeffery D. Kocsis, Ph.D.

Dr. Kocsis received his Ph.D. in anatomy (Neuroscience) from Wayne State University School of Medicine and subsequently engaged in post-doctoral studies in the Department of Neurology at the Harvard Medical School and the Research Laboratory of Electronics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He joined the faculty in the Department of Neurology at Stanford Medical School and the Palo Alto VA Medical Center before moving to Yale University.

Dr. Kocsis’ work has established the potential of cellular transplantation approaches for the repair of the injured nervous system. A research emphasis has been on remyelination by transplantation of myelin-forming cells into experimental models of demyelination and spinal cord injury. His laboratory first demonstrated that the conduction in demyelinated spinal cord axons is restored after remyelination by transplanted cells. They demonstrated that the normal pattern of ion channel distribution is reestablished in demyelinated spinal cord axons after cellular transplantation and remyelination.

With his colleagues they have pioneered the study of intravenous infusion of bone marrow derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) as a therapeutic strategy in spinal cord injury and stroke. A recent published clinical study suggests the feasibility of this approach to extent laboratory observations with MSCs to the clinic.

Dr. Roman Giger Ph.D.

Dr. Roman Giger has a long standing interest in the molecular and cellular mechanisms that regulate neuronal growth and plasticity in the naïve and injured mammalian central nervous system (CNS: brain and spinal cord). The main focus of his research is on the interactions of neurons with support cells of the CNS called glia.

Over the past decade he has identified novel receptor mechanisms for CNS regeneration inhibitors and characterized their function in both the healthy and injured / diseased brain and spinal cord. His research team studies (i) regeneration of nerve fibres in the optic nerve, (ii) regeneration of sensory nerve fibres in the spinal cord, (iii) nerve fibre regeneration in peripheral nerves, and (iv) demyelination lesions in the corpus callosum, an important signalling pathway of the brain.

To study how CNS regeneration inhibitors regulate the function of synapses (connections between neurons) his research team conducts electrophysiological recordings of signal transduction in neural circuits. His most recent work has focused on understanding how innate immunity influences axonal growth in the injured and diseased adult CNS. His research team have identified specific molecular signalling mechanisms in myeloid cells that are necessary to enable long-distance axonal regeneration of injured retinal neurons in the optic nerve.

Dr. Colin Combs Ph.D.

Colin Combs received his Ph.D. in 1996 from the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Rochester where he studied neuronal differentiation and the cytoskeletal protein, tau.

As a post-doctoral fellow in the Alzheimer Research Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University he studied microglial changes that occur in the brain during either prion or Alzheimer's disease. This resulted in patented strategies for modulating neuro-immune changes in the brain. In particular, his work focused on novel small molecule efforts designed to attenuate pro-inflammatory microglial activation.

He joined the Pharmacology, Physiology & Therapeutics Department at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences as an Assistant Professor in 2000 and was promoted to Professor in the merged Department of Basic Sciences at the University of North Dakota in 2013.

His laboratory continues to focus on the changes that occur in both resident and infiltrating immune cells in the brain with age, traumatic injury, and neurodegenerative diseases. They employ a spectrum of approaches ranging from fundamental small molecule drug discovery to preclinical animal model testing. He serves on the editorial board of numerous journals and regularly reviews for multiple granting agencies.

Dr. Stephen Davies Ph.D.

Dr. Stephen Davies is an internationally recognized research scientist who has devoted his scientific career to gaining a better understanding of why nerve fibre (axon) regeneration fails in the mammalian central nervous system (CNS) and the development of new technologies for repairing the injured or diseased brain and spinal cord. 

Dr. Davies completed his doctoral thesis in neurobiology studying axon growth in the adult mammalian CNS at the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London which was awarded by University College London in 1996. 

Upon moving from London to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio as a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Davies initiated a series of adult neuron to adult brain and spinal cord transplantation experiments that fundamentally changed the scientific community’s understanding of the role of scar tissue in preventing axon regeneration in the traumatically injured adult CNS.  

He was recruited as an assistant professor to Baylor College of Medicine, Texas in 2000, and later in 2007 to the University of Colorado, Denver as an Associate Professor with appointments in Neurosurgery, Neurology and Neurosciences. 

During his tenures in Texas and Colorado, Dr. Davies focused on the development of two complementary approaches to repairing the injured adult central nervous system. The first was a novel stem cell-based technology for making specific subtypes of beneficial astrocytes (a major CNS support cell) suitable for repairing the injured adult brain and spinal cord. The second was to investigate the use of a small leucine rich proteoglycan called Decorin as a means of promoting regeneration and plasticity of neural circuits within the axon growth inhibitory environment of the injured adult CNS.  Dr. Davies was awarded the American Spinal Injury Association prize for breakthrough in spinal cord injury research for his studies with Decorin.

In 2014 Dr. Davies was recruited to the Florey Institute where he continued the development of Decorin for use in treating a variety of neurological disorders with a particular focus on chronic spinal cord injury.  In 2019 Dr. Davies was recruited to Monash University where he has established the Spinal Cord Injury Research Program within the Department of Neuroscience at the AMREP campus. Dr. Davies research interests lie in understanding the cell and molecular biology regulating repair of the adult brain and spinal cord.

His research has been highlighted in numerous international news media articles and programs ranging from Discover Magazine to The Hindu newspaper. Notably, his studies of stem cell-derived astrocytes were featured in a book “Physics of the Future” by Michio Kaku as a technology that will have a significant impact on human civilization over the next century.