“The Future Of…” series asks a variety of UOW experts and researchers the same five questions, to provide insight into the potential future states of our lives, communities and world.

Featuring Associate Professor Jeremy Crook from UOW's Australian Institute of Innovative Materials (AIIM) and Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IPRI) is a Principal Research Fellow and Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science – illuminating how stem cells and materials science are being used to solve some of the biggest health challenges facing the world.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

Broadly speaking, my lab is progressing a program of research that brings together stem cells with novel biomaterials to build living three-dimensional (3D) synthetic tissues for a range of applications including studying tissue biology (healthy and diseased), for improvement or replacement of tissues of the human body, and building medical devices for regenerative medicine. We’re particularly interested in generating neural tissues using 3D cell printing as well as self-organizing systems called neural or brain organoids. Both approaches involve interfacing cells with biogels prepared from various natural and synthetic materials that support the stem cells and their formation into complex biological and clinically-relevant structures. The structures (or constructs) are more-or-less multi-cellular and multi-layered, with organoids also reminiscent of the first stages of embryonic brain development.

Studying the constructs on a cellular and molecular level is instructive by providing new insight to how natural body tissues form and function, which in turn helps to build even more highly developed tissues for further advanced research and medicine. Our approach extends to using electrostimulation to influence cell behaviour for either a biomimetic or augmented approach to engineering or regenerating tissues; somewhat echoing Frankenstein’s dream of using electricity to enliven tissue albeit a more real-world and practical narrative. Fictional analogies aside, we are fortunate to have leading experts supporting the work from a range of disciplines, including biologists, clinicians, chemists, physicists, engineers and ethicists. This is vital to understanding and traversing the myriad components of the work, all the while working collaboratively to identify, understand, design, and fast track innovation for a variety of pressing challenges in both science and medicine.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the most innovative or exciting things emerging over the next few years?

I’m excited about emerging technologies for precision research and medicine, including wearable and implantable biosensors as measurement tools, which incorporate ‘point of decision’ technologies for fast (and where applicable, preventative) and targeted therapies. Combined with machine learning we can reasonably expect rapid advances in research as well as diagnostics and therapeutics.

Originating from my doctoral and post-doctoral studies at the University of Melbourne and National Institute of Mental Health in the US, I’ve a long standing interest in the causes and treatment of schizophrenia, being a complex and poorly understood neuro developmental disorder of the brain with fairly limited treatment options. It’s likely that the above mentioned advances will provide a turning point for understanding and aid in diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia; as well as other intractable brain disorders. Ideally diagnosis in a patient will be possible before symptoms show up and molecular sensing combined with machine learning will enable better fine-tuning of a patient's treatment plan with a wider array of therapeutic modalities for improved personalisation and efficacy.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

A major ongoing concern for the regenerative medicine field relates to the availability of unproven and unauthorised stem cell treatments. In Australia, and many other countries, there are only a few approved stem cell related therapies, with the blood disorder leukemia being one example. Nonetheless, there are clinics around the world that offer stem cells to treat a variety of conditions including cancer, stroke, diabetes, and autism, as well as for cosmetics involving unapproved anti-aging treatments.

People need to be aware of the significant risk to their health and financially, with little if any evidence for the treatments being beneficial. While there are a number of stem cell therapies undergoing clinical trial, and although some are showing promise, they are only experimental and yet to be proven as safe and effective. For anyone considering any medical therapy (stem cell based or otherwise), they should consult their medical specialist or health care provider.

Where do you believe major opportunities lie for people thinking about future career options?

Many of the most pressing challenges facing Australia and the world – equity and equality in healthcare, food and water security, renewable energy, climate change, waste-management and recycling, environment protection and biodiversity conservation, to name a few - are and will need to be addressed by innovators in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — disciplines collectively known as STEM. It’s imperative that quality STEM learning opportunities be developed, promoted and made accessible for young people to develop the knowledge base and meet the requirements for innovating and leading in a rapidly changing world. In recognising the urgency of having to address both the longer-standing and newly-emerging issues, career opportunities within both the public and private sectors must and will quickly grow out of necessity. The future is now!

In regards to your field of study or expertise, what is the best piece of advice you could offer to our readers?

My advice is to initially identify a big picture challenge that you’d like to address - be it in my chosen area of regenerative medicine, or tackling climate change, or solving the problems resulting from global waste (be inspired by Craig Reucassel on ABC TVs “War On Waste” just to name a few – and pursue expertise in one or two relevant STEM disciplines. In embarking on your STEM career, focus on the things that count but don’t be blinkered, align yourself with a great mentor, recognise opportunities as they present and create opportunities where and when you can, push through the glass ceiling by hard work and having a can-do-it-attitude, and be sure to learn from both success and failure. Finally, I’m a firm believer in working for the greater cause and the personal rewards will follow. Go for it!

For more from Associate Professor Jeremy Crook you can visit his UOW Scholars profile