Inside Biology’s Black Box

Professor Megan Munsie, Deputy Director of the Centre for Stem Cell Systems, and Professor Andrew Elefanty from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and University of Melbourne’s Department of Paediatrics have featured in this month's Cosmos, Issue 86 Autumn 2020 – The Future is Personal.

Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine known for its beautiful pictures and high-quality writing  to explain the latest in scientific discoveries and breakthroughs. The magazine aims to inspire curiosity in 'The Science of Everything' and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

In the article ‘Inside Biology’s Black Box’, Paul Biegler explores a how embryo-like structures called embryoids are being engineered from human stem cells. These balls of cells mimic the earliest moments of development, which have been previously largely unobservable.

The embryoids could one day be used to screen drugs for toxicity in the womb and other applications that provide answers to questions around reproduction and development that we cannot address by other means.

“What if we could develop a screening mechanism, that is an adjunct to pharmaceutical development, that enabled us to provide a safeguard for a new drug?” asks Professor Megan Munsie.

Embryoids are also being used at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute by Professor Andrew Elefanty and his lab to try to make bespoke blood for people with blood diseases – those whose bone marrow has failed to produce enough blood cells (bone marrow failure) or has produced too many blood cells (leukaemias).

Importantly, Paul Biefler explores the ethics of modelling early human development using human stem cells and how recent developments challenge the current definition of a human embryo and how such research is regulated in Australia and elsewhere. Although these developments may raise questions around what the appropriate length of time is to keep these structures in culture, one thing that all agree on is that research must have institutional ethics committee review and approval. Anything less is not acceptable.

Read the full article in the 2020 Autumn edition of Cosmos, found in all good newsagencies.

Professor Megan Munsie is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Stem Cell Systems;  Professor Andrew Elefanty is a member for the Centre and is completing research under the Stem Cells and Developmental Biology research theme.

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Prof Megan Munsie