Tasmanian high school students delve into stem cell research

04 April 2019
High schools students in Hobart attended a stem cell forum, hosted by Guilford Young College
On Monday 1 April, 350 students from seven secondary schools attended an engaging Stem Cell Forum at Guilford Young College in Hobart. Stem Cells Australia partnered with Guilford Young College, the University of Tasmania and Menzies Institute for Medical Research to showcase stem cell science and the ethical and legal implications of this emerging technology. 

The session commenced with a warm welcome from Biology teacher Rebecca Clifford and the Principal of Guilford Young College, Craig Deayton, before hearing about the latest developments in stem cell medical research. 

Associate Professor Megan Munsie from the University of Melbourne, provided an overview of stem cell biology and how they are used in research and the clinic. Megan encouraged students to delve behind the headlines that often accompany news about the latest stem cell breakthrough and think deeply about the science and the challenges associated with turning discoveries into new medicines. 

Associate Professor Kaylene Young from the University of Tasmania and the Menzies Institute for Medical Research then discussed how her team of researchers have discovered a particular type of brain stem cell, called the oligodendrocytes progenitor cell, that is responsible for making new cells that can insulate neural pathways. Kaylene is investigating ways of activating brain stem cells, to potentially re-insulate pathways in the brain and hopefully reverse the symptoms of brain diseases.

Professor Alex Hewitt from the University of Tasmania and the Menzies Institute for Medical Research is a practising ophthalmologist as well as a medical researcher. Alex is using CRISPR-Cas9, an emerging gene editing tool, to introduce targeted variations in specific genes in photoreceptor cells from patients. Alex and his team can then study the effects of these changes and gain insights into the role of those genes in the normal development and function of photoreceptors. 

Alex also spoke about the changes in stem cell biology in the last 50 years and the breakthrough from Shinya Yamanaka who discovered that only four growth factors were needed to change a mature cell into an immature stem cell. Alex’s advice: think left of field and get excited about the breakthroughs of the next 50 years.   

The high school students then heard from Dr Lisa Eckstein from the University of Tasmania, who described how ethical principles and the law frame medical research. Lisa used a number of case studies involving stem cells and other emerging technologies to illustrate ethics in practice and highlight gaps in current regulatory oversight. Lisa discussed how creating more laws is not always the solution and how researchers should be collaborating with communities and regulators to ensure guidelines for emerging technologies remain relevant. 

The Forum’s hour-long Q&A session also provided the students who had studied stem cells in the classroom an opportunity to delve deeper and ask the hard questions. The questions ranged from understanding why the immune system didn’t destroy some stem cells, to the ratio of clinical trials position available to the number of potential participants, to whether animal stem cells could be used in humans. The many thought-provoking questions that were asked of the panel explored various aspects of stem cell research, its ethical and social impact and public perception of this research. 

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

Many thanks to all those who helped organise this fantastic event, including Rebecca Clifford from Guilford Young College, the fabulous panel and a huge thanks to the students from Guilford Young College, The Friend’s School, Fahan School, St Michael’s Collegiate, The Hutchins School, Calvin Christian School, Claremont College, New Norfolk High School, Rosny College and St Mary’s College for their participation. 

Professor Alex Hewitt and Associate Professor Megan Munsie are Chief Investigators with Stem Cells Australia; Associate Professor Megan Munsie is the Head of the Engagement, Ethics and Policy Program.