If you’re reading this through the misery of a mid-winter flu, at least you’re better off than the poor Bendigo boy who found himself in World War I with a bullet wound in the arm, tuberculosis in the lungs and gonorrhea in the muddy trenches. Though presumably not obtained in that order, the fact he suffered all three at once would mark him out as particularly unlucky. Unless you happen to be a biomedical researcher, in which case he’s like the Holy Grail of bacterial infection. This unlucky lad has been resurrected for a new exhibition at Melbourne Museum – though thankfully in digital form – and his misfortunes will be used to open visitors up to the marvels of the human body. Biomedical Breakthroughs: A New View of You may sound like something the squeamish might want to avoid, but those involved in creating it repeatedly use an unexpected term when describing the collection of biology-based installations. They call it beautiful.
Johanna Simkin is senior curator of human biology and medicine at the museum, and speaks about the workings of the human body with a real sense of wonder. “Once you see how incredibly intricate and coordinated and dynamic biology is, you can’t help but be captivated. As soon as I learnt a bit about biology I wanted to know more and the more you go into the detail the more mind-blowing it is that we can all function as we do. All our cells are doing a million different things at once.” Simkin’s own background is in biomedical research (her PhD looked at embryonic stem cells) and in curating the upcoming exhibition she wanted to marry real science with the spectacle of a modern museum experience: “to shake up your old view of science by showing biology as colourful and dynamic and going on inside you. It’s not your traditional museum space.” Rather than focus on the “squelchy biology” of the body, Simkin says that Biomedical Breakthroughs brings things all the way down to the cellular level, and there’s an innate beauty to the intricacy and complexity of our world at that detail. “We use the phrase ‘chaotically coordinated’ a lot because it captures it perfectly. Tiny molecules jiggling around and doing these incredibly intricate signalling processes that allow your immune system to detect an invader, for example. You learn how your cells are able to talk to each other and do that with their own specialised roles within the body. ” Don’t go to this exhibition expecting horror movie imagery, then. You’re more likely to encounter DNA magnified 3 million times and projected with stunning definition. There’s a Space Invaders-style interactive game that demonstrates the workings of immune cells, and a molecule spinner that lets you try your hand at designing a cure for cancer.
Much of the exhibition’s beauty lies in the lavish animations created by Drew Berry, whose work has earned him Emmy and BAFTA awards and a collaboration with Bjork, but who for 20 years has also been a kind of artist-in-residence at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI). Berry was once described by the New York Times as the “Steven Spielberg of molecular animation”. After graduating uni with a master’s in cellular biology, he grew disillusioned with the whole grant application process and turned his back on science, instead moving into advertising. That’s how he got a job at WEHI as a “photoshop guy, jazzing up their images for journals and stuff.” His interest in computer graphics eventually saw him producing an animation based on the life cycle of a malaria virus – just for kicks, you know – but it drew the interest of the institute’s then-director Suzanne Cory. With the institute’s ongoing support he has since developed a practice that has earned him international renown for animations as hypnotic as they are scientifically accurate. “You can be an art scientist or a science artist,” he says. “What I do as a science artist, the science is first, it’s the data, the real models, and the art comes from that.” The molecular world that Berry works with isn’t just invisible to the naked eye. It’s smaller than the wavelength of light, so “seeing” it in a conventional sense is impossible. “So how do you represent a world that can’t actually be seen? There are other ways of seeing it that are beyond the human, like molecular microscopes, other ways of probing the molecular world so we have an idea of what’s going on. I interpret that.” Berry uses the same kind of technologies employed by Hollywood and video game manufacturers to create his visualisations, but he describes much of what he does as “storytelling”, even if the stories being told are happening at the level of cells or molecules. The exhibition isn’t short on stories at the more recognisably human scale. Along with the hat-trick of misfortune mentioned above, there are people such as Kevin Budden, who in 1950 managed to capture a taipan in order to help produce the world’s first anti-venom for that variety of snake. Along the way the taipan got in a couple of protest bites, and given that taipan’s are one of the world’s deadliest serpents, you can guess how his story ended. As he looked into his extremely abbreviated future, however, he insisted that the snake be kept unharmed and delivered to Melbourne, where staff at Commonwealth Serum Laboratories managed to produce the anti-venom that would go on to save so many lives. Just not Budden’s.
Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) is 100 years old this year and is one of the major collaborators on the exhibition. The other is WEHI, which at 101 years of age is the oldest institute of its kind in the country. WEHI is a medical research institute while CSL translates findings into real products, but both have an intertwined history that goes back to World War I, when they shared laboratories here in Melbourne. The objects that have been produced across the history of medical science have their own aesthetic appeal, says CSL’s chief scientific officer Dr Andrew Cuthbertson. “A hundred years ago scientific instruments were handmade out of beautiful materials, and some are genuinely like pieces of sculpture, so an original vial of snake venom, in the label and the wording you can understand how these things were conceived and made, but all of the objects are fundamentally made by hand. They’re not mass-produced.”
The Melbourne Museum exhibition gives prominence to the medical breakthroughs that have occurred locally but which might come as news to the average Melburnian. There’s Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, whose work with immune systems earned him a Nobel Prize. In the 1940s he worked out a way to grow the influenza virus in chicken eggs, and while that might not sound like the fanciest of science, it’s still how things are done today. “We still use basically the same technology, and if there’s a big worry about a pandemic influenza outbreak then there are semi-trailers going into CSL full of chicken eggs ready to be inoculated,” says WEHI director Professor Doug Hilton. The history of Melbourne’s medical breakthroughs showcased by this exhibition might go back a century, but they’re also as up-to-the-minute as you could hope for. There are cancer breakthroughs included in the exhibition that aren’t even quite public yet. “We’ve also got a couple of new therapies for autoimmune disease,” says Simkin. “We’ve got a coeliac disease vaccine, a type 1 diabetes vaccine, which are incredibly cutting edge and they’re in clinical trial as we speak. We’ve gone from 100 years ago right up to this second.”
When it comes to biomedical research, Melbourne has long punched above its weight. “Melbourne is a really, really strong precinct,” says Hilton. “We’ve had a number of institutes that have a really long history, like Baker, IDI in Prahran, the Florey and the Murdoch and WEHI. Really high quality institutions. It’s that critical mass together that gives it a real strength.” At the same time, the level of collaboration, rather than competition, has put the city ahead of some. “There’s a real camaraderie. We’re not treading on each other’s toes all the time and that sense of excitement and joy that we get when we hear of a breakthrough that’s been made in Melbourne, even if it’s not in our own institute, is a really good culture and it’s a little bit different to a lot of places.” “It’s really important that we behave in that way,” says Cuthbertson. “The competition is not in Australia, it’s in the world. Medical research is a world-wide activity that we participate in and the enemies are the afflictions that cause premature death and suffering. That’s where we should be focused.”
Which isn’t to say that researchers don’t want to be the first to make a big discovery. “There are no silver medals in science, really,” says Hilton. “We all in our own areas want to be the person to make a breakthrough. Part of it is the recognition but part of it’s also that eureka moment of realising you’ve discovered something that nobody else has seen. That is a pretty powerful and addictive sort of drug.” Medical breakthroughs take a lot of patience, if you’ll pardon the pun. Consider WEHI’s Don Metcalf, who spent 15 years determining the importance of particular hormones named CSFs, but whose discovery has gone on to help more than 20 million cancer patients globally. Hilton hopes that the stories of people such as Metcalf provide museum visitors with “an understanding of the time scales of science. That it does require people beavering away. It does require some patience. That’s important for the community to understand, that breakthroughs are not overnight things. If you want them to happen, the funding needs to be beyond the yearly or three-yearly political cycle.” If all of this sounds a bit darker than your average museum exhibition, Simkin agrees that Biomedical Breakthroughs will probably appeal to a more adult audience. Some of the topics Berry has addressed are “kind of dark and disturbing”, he says. “It’s intriguing but a lot of the stories I’m telling are about diseases, like cancer or how the body attacks itself with diseases like diabetes, or of malaria, where a parasite travels through your body trying to hide from you.” To that end, the sound design for his animations have been produced by long-time collaborator Franc Tetaz, best known for winning a Grammy as part of Gotye. This isn’t an exhibition of horror-movie imagery, but sound is another matter. “A lot of the sound design is inspired by horror films like The Shining or Alien, so they’re supposed to be disturbing. When you’re sitting up close to cancer, you’re supposed to feel unsettled.”
But for the most part, Simkin says, “we’re looking at the innovations that are going on that are creating these real potential cures. We break down the biology so people can think of things at the cellular level. We’re not trying to make a confronting exhibition. You want people to leave feeling awestruck by the incredible biology that they’ve seen.” “And then I just hope there’s a sense of wonder and excitement, a bit of wow factor,” says Hilton. “And that there will be some kids coming through that might be winning Nobel Prizes and making amazing discoveries 20 years down the track.”