ISCT 2020: conference highlights

Written by Freya Leask

The International Society for Cell & Gene Therapy (ISCT) Annual Meeting usually brings together the great and the good in cell and gene therapy to discuss the latest news and updates in the field. The COVID-19 pandemic forced ISCT 2020 to move to a virtual space but would an online conference recapitulate the atmosphere of ISCT? Read on for my report from the meeting.

Quality not quantity

In previous years, the live ISCT meeting has been four days long, comprising a pre-conference workshop day and three days of plenary sessions, concurrent sessions and other presentations. ISCT 2020 had a mix of live and pre-recorded sessions over just two days. However, this made attendance far more time-efficient; instead of having to wait for sessions of interest to take place, where many were pre-recorded, I was able to pack out my first day with sessions and speaker interviews before settling in on day two to watch the live sessions, or catch with sessions from day one.

With an increasingly busy conference schedule in the cell and gene therapy field, I’m ever mindful of time away from the office and the challenge of maximizing output over a few days. In addition to the time-savings with the program, ISCT 2020 has also taken the step of making all content available for a year following the meeting. This availability, as well as the mix of session types and shorter conference, has the added bonus of making the meeting far more accessible for attendees who are unable to travel or would find it beneficial to be able to review content again and again at their leisure (for example, if their note-taking isn’t what it could be!).

I found the platform chosen by ISCT 2020 very accessible and straightforward to navigate around; the avatars of the conference chairs were a little uncanny valley (reminiscent of National Rail’s creepy ‘Virtual Assistants’, anyone?) but, along with a virtual Eiffel Tower being just visible in the background of the virtual lobby, made the platform one you wanted to explore to find further Easter eggs, rather than something you only used because you absolutely had to.

Speaking to Queenie Jang, CEO, ISCT, during the meeting, it’s clear the society has been doing its homework. “We’re constantly in dialogue with our members; we have over 41 standing committees that receive office support,” she explained, and “[ISCT] has a lot of consensus-driven decisions, peer review and feedback from [all] sides”.

Then President, John Rasko, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (Sydney, Australia), agrees: “We believe we are setting the gold standard for virtual meetings that others will plan to look towards” in an exclusive RegMedNet interview. “We recognize that this is a competitive space and we need to serve our membership”.

Key takeaways

But what about the research presented? As Queenie explained, at ISCT, “everything that we do is always about the patients”. Book-ending plenary sessions on COVID-19 set the scene for a lot of the discussions this meeting around developing a robust supply chain, clinical trial protocol or manufacturing process as well as coloring the always interesting discussions around ethics and policy. They also provided opportunities to hear from the ‘front lines’ of COVID-19 treatment, Italy and New York, with sobering presentations from clinicians.

On the topic of ethics, this year the Presidential Task Force shifted its gaze from unproven cell therapies to the murkier world of cell banking. Although some technologies, such as cord blood banking, are well-established, the increase in advanced therapy approvals has led to a similar increase in business offer to bank T-cells and other tissues.

“We are seeing firms that are making promises to patients about what they can do with your cells, or what may be possible down the road,” explained Aaron Levine, Georgia Institute of Technology (GA, USA), speaking to RegMedNet during the meeting. “We don’t think [they] are in line with reality.”

Another oft-discussed subject at ISCT 2020 was that of manufacturing, particularly in the scale-up of processes. With more and more approvals coming every year, this is a question that is like to have multiple answers; actively learning from past approvals and sharing knowledge where possible will be important in getting these therapies to patients as quickly as possible.

To cell or not to cell?

A number of ISCT 2020 presentations that prompted discussion, at least on Twitter, concerned acellular technologies, such as therapeutic exosomes or extracellular vesicles. Acellular therapies may avoid some of the challenges faced by cell-based therapies involving engraftment; however, large heterogeneity between products dependent on manufacturing process and lack of track record with regulatory agencies means we are unlikely to see acellular in the clinic anytime soon.

Looking ahead to 2021

Part of what I have always enjoyed about ISCT are the attendees; they are always a fun bunch, game for partying as hard as they work. Although we missed out on the networking drinks, ISCT 2020’s #ISCTParisVirtualChallenge demonstrated society members’ sense of humor and community.

The aim of ISCT is always to remain a trusted voice in the field, advocating for patients and the industry alike. How does ISCT ensure it remains relevant in a such a complex ecosystem? “It really does come down ensuring that your leadership is actively involved and…caring,” Queenie explained. Although cell and gene therapy can feel like a new field, ISCT has been in existence for over 25 years so is well practiced as reacting to the latest big thing.

As Bruce Levine (University of Pennsylvania, PA, USA), the man taking over from John Rasko as ISCT President and   commented as he closed the meeting: what makes ISCT special is that ISCT members are “explorers”. In a field where there may be no roadmap, “ISCT will build that road”.