Delightful overview of ISSCR 2013 by guest blogger Dr. Susan Lim

By Dr. Susan Lim

A record 4100 delegates attended the 11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), held at the Convention and Exhibition Center in Boston from 12-15 June 2013.ISSCR 2013 Susan Lim

Co-sponsored by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the Meeting featured 7 Plenary sessions including a Presidential Symposium, 20 concurrent scientific sessions and two named lectures, the Anne McClaren Memorial Lecture and the Ernest McCulloch Memorial Lecture, with 26 Innovative Biotech presentations sandwiched comfortably between the Plenary and Concurrent Sessions, and several other networking and educational sessions.

The academic caliber of the ISSCR leadership, helmed this year by it’s first Nobel prize winner Shinya Yamanaka, for his pioneering discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, inspired a record number of mostly young poster attendees, 1,865 to be precise, the best of which were selected as poster teasers for brief oral presentations.  Here, the competition was apparently so keen, that one of the young poster presenters took to singing the contents of his poster on stage, in an effort, successfully I may add, to stand out among the crowd!

Shinya Yamanaka opened the Symposium with his Presidential address, recounting his almost fairytale    bedside-to-bench transition from Orthopaedic surgeon to researcher, as he charted his route to the Nobel Prize in 2012.  It was good to see that his address was followed next with a lecture on “Inner Cell Mass Hysteria” by James Thomson, recipient of the McEwen Award for Innovation for his own pioneering work in iPS cells performed around the same time.  The other four speakers in the Presidential Symposium, Richard Young, Edith Heard, Elaine Fuchs and Doug Melton gave excellent keynotes in their respective fields.    I found Doug Melton’s research on “Making Pancreatic Beta Cells” inspiring, particularly his discovery of the new hormone betatrophin, with the potential to dramatically up the numbers of beta cells for future transplantation. Melton made a call for innovative research in the area of encapsulation technology which would protect beta cells from immune rejection and enable their successful   transplantation to cure insulin-dependent diabetes.

The Presidential Symposium was followed by Plenary II on “Regeneration, Engraftment and Migration”, which included a tantalizing visualisation of stem cell biology in vivo by Charles Lin, and which culminated in the Ernest McCulloch Memorial Lecture on “Milestones and Barriers in Haematopoietic Stem Cell Derivation from Pluripotent Stem Cells” by George Daley.

Plenary III covered “Disease Modeling” focusing on the use of induced pluripotent stem cells to model the neurodegenerative diseases Alzheimer’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and Cardiovascular disease modeling, the latter being vigorously pursued in most labs across the country and elsewhere, as movie clips on beating cardiomyocytes in the dish have now become a familiar inclusion in most cardiovascular presentations.

Cell and Gene Therapy was the subject of Plenary IV, with progress in gene transfer technology using viral vectors reported in new ongoing human trials of X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, chronic granulomatous disease and Metachromatic Leukodystrophy.  Also, Sarah Ferber’s work on transdifferentiation and it’s implementation in autologous cell replacement therapy for diabetes provided another approach to the potential restoration of the beta cell mass in Type I diabetics, allowing the diabetic patient to serve as the donor of his own therapeutic tissue.

Three Plenary Sessions on Stem Cells and Fate Control, Genomics and Epigenomics of Stem Cells, and Making Tissues and Organs packed the final day with intense stem cell science. This was also the first bright and sunny day of the Meeting, yet the Hall was impressively filled particularly for the session on Genomics and Epigenomics of Stem Cells, the highlight being the research on cloning by Mitalipov entitled “ Reprogramming of Human Somatic Cells to Pluripotency by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer”.

Unfortunately, due to exigencies of flight schedules, I could not stay for the last Plenary Session on “Making Tissues and Organs”, sadly missing Timothy Bertram’s talk on “Regenerating Kidney and Hollow Organs”, and Eric Lander’s “Secrets of the Human Genome”, among other outstanding talks inevitably missed due to the concurrent sessions. Fortunately, the organizers aim to put the lectures online in the coming weeks so stay tuned.

The 20 Concurrent sessions covered, in addition to two Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell sessions, Neural stem cells, Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, Stem Cell Signaling and Niches, Stem Cells, Injury and Regeneration, New Technologies for Controlling and Observing Stem Cell Behaviour, Cell Fate Conversion, Stem Cell Aging and Metabolism, Hematopoietic Stem Cells, Epigenetics of Stem Cells, Stem Cell Therapies, Chemical control of Stem Cell Behaviour, Germ Cell Biology and Artificial Gametes, Stem Cells in Organ Development, Self Renewal Mechanisms, Immunology and Stem Cells, Stem Cells and Cancer and Chromatin Regulation in Stem Cells.

Most of these sessions inspired lively discussions in the Q&A, while at the only session devoted to cancer, “Stem cells and Cancer”, the ongoing controversy in the field was acknowledged by Chairperson Mina Bissell of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab who joked that the Session was intentionally not named  “cancer stem cells”, as the identity of these cells was still in a state of flux and evolving, particularly in her area of breast cancer research.

The Session on Immunology and Stem Cells chaired by Irv Weissman drew a large attendance underscoring the importance of scientific advance in the area of the immune response to stem cells including the differentiated progeny of pluripotent stem cells ahead of any clinical translation.

As anticipated, Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cell research featured prominently at the Meeting, being the subject of two Concurrent sessions on Day 2, as well as a Plenary on Disease Modeling.  Also for the first time, a session on Stem Cell Therapies devoted to early translational research in the areas of clinical cell therapy for Amyotrophic lateral Sclerosis and lumbar degenerative disc disease was included.  While early results show some statistical success, in the latter IRB controlled prospective study of 26 patients, there is clearly a lot more research required not least in determining the physical and histologic changes to the lumbar disc arising from the bone marrow concentrate injections.

At the ISSCR Business Meeting, an emphasis to include more clinician participants as the science moves from bench to bedside threw open a question by George Daley, Executive Committee member, on whether to include CME certification going forward, while an overseas participant in the audience suggested that Certificates of Attendance be provided, more typical of requests from clinicians who take leave from their busy practices to attend.

The Headquarters staff led by CEO Nancy Witty must be commended on a superb conference, an academically rich yet well spaced scientific program, with plenty of morning coffee tables and afternoon iced tea and lemonade stations, though the cold drinks stations proved less popular due to exigencies of the weather, the hot coffee and tea stations being sorely missed in the afternoons.

Wonderful science throughout, yet the Meeting’s most memorable highlight was perhaps the patient advocate address by Andres Trevino on the ethical dilemma he and his wife desperately faced, as they purposefully took to IVF to preselect and create baby Sophia whose umbilical cord cells would be transfused into her dying brother Andy, to save his life.

Dr Susan Lim MD, PhD, general surgeon, pioneered the first successful cadaveric liver transplant in Asia, also the longest surviving to date in Asia.  FRCS (Gold medal) from Edinburgh 1984, PhD in transplantation immunology from the university of Cambridge UK in 1989, FACS, Fellow Trinity College University of Melbourne, and Distinguished  Alumnus Monash University,  now in private surgical practice with a continued interest in stem cell research.  On the Global Advisory Board of the ISSCR since 2010. LinkedIn: drsusanlim

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