Growing organs in a dish: From science fiction to reality?

On Wednesday 3 May, 60 students from seven secondary schools attended an engaging program on stem cells and organoid research at the Gene Technology Access Centre (GTAC). GTAC partnered with Stem Cells Australia (SCA) and the Melbourne Neuroscience Institute, University of Melbourne (UoM) to present this event as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week 2017.

The day commenced with Dr Jennifer Durnall from the Neurogenesis and Neural transplantation laboratory at the Florey who provided an introduction to the world of stem cell research and explained the role of stem cells in the body and how they can be used in medicine. Students were also treated to a short film titled ‘A Stem Cell Story’, which features innovative hand-drawn animation, beautiful cell photography and documentary interviews which capture the fascination and complexity of this cutting-edge area of science.

The students then descended upon the GTAC laboratories and were taught to use laboratory equipment to explore different methods of culturing, differentiating and characterising stem cells for organoid research.

Students were then joined by A/Prof Mirella Dottori and Dr Dustin Flanagan who provided fascinating case studies on their organoid research. A/Prof Dottori from the Centre for Neural Engineering, UoM showcased her research on growing brain-like organoids that help researchers understand human neural development and disease. This was followed up by Dr Flanagan, from the molecular oncology laboratory at the Doherty institute who presented his research on using organoids to develop personalised tailored therapies for cancer patients.

An expanded group of students then joined members of the public to attend the Melbourne Knowledge Week event ‘Growing organs in a dish: From science fiction to reality?’ hosted by expert moderator Jacinta Duncan, Director of GTAC at the Melbourne Brain Centre, UoM.  This panel session featured keynote presentations by scientists working in different areas of organoid research.

The session again features A/Prof Mirella Dottori speaking on brain organoids; Dr Dustin Flanagan on gut organoids; Dr Jess Vanslambrouck on kidney organoids and A/Prof Fred Hollande on colorectal organoids. They discussed the development of the organoid tool, and explore how it is helping with varied research into different disorders and different organs. These presentations were followed by Prof Bob Williamson who provided a perspective on the ethical landscape of this emerging area of science.

The presentations were followed by a panel session and questions from the audience and from twitter. Questions from the audience varied hugely, and explored the ethical, social impact and public perception of this research.

This showcase into stem cell research was captivating and interactive, and provided an exceptional insight into stem cell and organoid research and what it means for our society now and into the future.