Going virtual for ISCT 2020: an interview with John Rasko

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

In this interview, John Rasko, current President, International Society for Cell & Gene Therapy (ISCT), and Head of Department, Cell & Molecular Therapies, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (Sydney, Australia), discusses the opportunities for a virtual meeting and the challenges of producing pluripotent cells with therapeutic intent.

Is this what you expected in organizing ISCT 2020?

I don’t think anyone signed up to organize a virtual meeting during an international pandemic of this size and scope! These are unprecedented times. Up until well into February, we were still planning to meet face to face in Paris, so it has been a humbling experience.

The organization of a conference usually takes two years, to prepare and plan for the hotel accommodation, the conference, the invited speakers, and a complex web of commercial, academic and scientific members, to converge in one location. Instead, we’ve compressed that into a virtual interactive space.

It’s a really exciting opportunity for everyone to come together in this virtual space for ISCT 2020.

It really is extraordinary to imagine that this did not exist two months ago and it is a credit to the organizing committee, to Rachele Cicciocioppo (ISCT 2020 Co-Chair and University of Verona, Italy), Ivan Martin (ISCT 2020 Co-Chair and University Hospital Basel, Switzerland) and Christian Chabannon (ISCT 2020 Co-Chair and Institut Paoli Calmettes and Aix-Marseille Université, France), and of course to the head office. They have worked tirelessly over the last two months along with the steering committee and the ISCT Executive to re-engineer a full meeting into 48 hours of continuous sessions that will be live, interactive and, of course, available for another 12 months after the actual live event.

Instead of relying on what you can remember or write down in your notebook, you’ll have access to the meeting’s content until June 2021, for less than the price as you would have paid for just a few days. And before, we would be obliged to communicate in English but now when we chat, we will have access to an online virtual real time translation into 39 different languages. So it’s not all doom and gloom, it’s not all negative. There are actually some amazing advantages to the virtual meeting.

There were always many people who complained they would have loved to travel to the ISCT Annual meeting, but their institution or finances just couldn’t allow them to spend thousands of dollars. This 2020 virtual meeting makes attending even more accessible. Its available in your armchair, your study, your office or your bedroom! So lots of major changes, but exciting, given that we had had to respond to an international crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Were you able to attend other virtual events to assess what worked and what didn’t?

We had to make our commitment early on and what we decided to do was to go “all in”.

Everyone has been shocked at the rapidity with which the world has changed in light of the COVID-19 crisis. I don’t think anyone I speak to, indeed myself, believes that we will ever return to business-as-usual – as it was before January 2020.

I think that the more likely scenario will be a hybrid meeting with both virtual attendees and physical attendance, which may well be the future of many academic conferences. Therefore, we decided that we wanted to be sure that our membership would get the highest quality interactive experience. We didn’t want to lose anything in terms of the quality of the education and interactive experience that we’ve come to love when we meet our friends every year at designated ISCT cities all over the globe.

These are unprecedented times…so it has been a humbling experience.

We did take a risk, but we believe we are setting the gold standard for virtual meetings that others will plan to look towards. We recognize that this is a competitive space and we need to serve our membership. In order to do so, we’ve never made it easier for our membership to join their colleagues to present, communicate and translate their research to the wider community.

It’s a really exciting opportunity for everyone to come together in this virtual space for ISCT 2020. However, of course we would still love to be meeting face to face. We recognize that there are so many advantages in the opportunity to bump into somebody, a virtual meeting may never reach that level of human contact or communication.

Accessibility can mean many things; do you think ISCT 2020 going virtual will mean the content and discussions are less Europe or US-centric?

Absolutely! A virtual meeting will make us even closer and potentially more diverse. As the first ISCT President ever from the Southern Hemisphere since our founding in 1992, I place enormous value on encouraging communication from all corners of the globe. It also means that attendees will be able to share thoughts directly with an industry representative in commercialization, or talk to the actual presenter who’s manning a poster live, or listen to an audio recording by clicking on a link at the top of their poster. They can record those things straight onto their computer, annotate slides immediately – and do it all in their pyjamas!

How can the industry ensure that is able to bounce back from this pause enforced by COVID-19?

We have a number of sessions directly addressing the challenges of international supply chains, the issues of commercialization and the fact that we’ve had to rejig clinical trials and restructure patient care as a result of COVID-19. Nevertheless, delivering cell and gene therapies to patients has always been a cornerstone of the ISCT.

Our field has proven we can develop therapies for some indications, but the majority are very rare diseases

ISCT embodies a relatively apparently young ecosystem and industry. When I look back over 25 years of working actively and engaged in this sector, we never knew that in 2020, we would be celebrating therapeutics that were only a twinkle in our eyes a generation ago.

We now have CAR-T cell therapies that are saving lives every day, all across the world. We have hematopoietic stem cell and gene therapies that have been approved in the EU for thalassaemia and many more in the pipeline, because we are no longer in the proof-of-principle stage. We have proven the efficacy of these therapies and that they can change lives, so we know that we’re here for the long haul. Therefore, whilst it might appear we are a new field, and certainly some of the things we’ll be hearing about in the meeting will be fresh, they’ve actually been anticpated for many, many years.

What obstacles are still standing in the way of wider use of cell and gene therapies?

I think that’s absolutely key – if you really wish to be critical of where we are right now. Our field has proven we can develop therapies for some indications, but the majority are very rare diseases.

Even a hematologist like me who might be obsessed with the leukemias and lymphomas, for example, recognizes that these are not the most common cancers that afflict humanity. If you contrast acute myeloid leukemia, which is a rare disease, with diseases such as lung cancer, breast cancer or the even more life-threatening and tragic diseases like pancreatic cancer, we really have a long way to go before we can address these major issues.

That’s where we need to leverage the learnings that have been acquired in the diseases in which we’ve had some successes and translate them into a much broader applicability.

This is a really beautiful moment to enjoy during troubling times

There are also ethical issues to consider: there are people who would take advantage of some advancements and convert them into false promises, and we’ve seen the arrival of unproven cell-based therapeutics and unproven clinics popping up all over the world. The ISCT’s Presidential Task Force has been vigorous in raising awareness about this for over a decade now. We recently submitted a substantial academic document, in collaboration with the Worldwide Network for Blood & Marrow Transplantation, to the World Health Organization on this topic.

On the broader issues of ethics, we need to recognize that in the future, we will be embarking on gene therapies that may touch on some of the fundamental questions about what it means to be human, with the advent of germline gene editing. All of these areas converge in the ISCT, bringing together expertise in manufacturing gene and cell therapies, commercialization and reimbursement. Making this available to patients will be where we want to succeed over the next 25 years of the society.

In addition to the welcome at ISCT 2020, you will also be chairing the Presidential Symposium on manufacturing pluripotent cells with therapeutic intent. What does therapeutic intent mean?

The field of regenerative medicine rose through a desire to be able to address the deficiencies of transplantation and organ availability. If you have kidney failure, why not grow back your own kidney? Who wouldn’t be a fan of that, if we could do it and do it in a way that will be safe and ethically acceptable?

Of course, human embryonic stem cells have been mired in ethical controversy – so induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) came as a breath of fresh air. iPSCs were the subject of the Nobel Prize in 2012, so what we wanted to do with the Presidential Symposium was provide an update and a reality check.

…we need to leverage the learnings that have been acquired in the diseases in which we’ve had some successes and translate them into a much broader applicability…

Although the first description of induced pluripotency was in 2006, with the Nobel Prize in 2012, John Gurdon did his famous work on pluripotency in 1962 and we still don’t really have any approved regenerative medicines. Therefore, we need to reflect on the various areas where regenerative medicine may have its first success.

Our three speakers in the symposium are towering pillars in the field of induced pluripotency: Rudolf Jaenisch (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA, USA), Peter Zandstra (University of British Columbia, BC, Canada) and Marc Peschanski (Institut Pasteur, France). These three speakers will take us on a journey from basic through translational to ultimately therapeutic applications and manufacturing of iPSCs. We hope to identify signposts of where we can go to progress the field of regenerative medicine.

What should people look forward to at ISCT 2020 or keep in mind when they’re watching the presentations this week?

This is a really beautiful moment to enjoy during troubling times and I hope it will be a fulfilling and exciting educational experience for everyone. We’ll be sharing 50 hours of live and on demand streaming at ISCT 2020, covering the whole gamut of cell and gene therapies from mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) and iPSCs to CAR-T cells and exosomes. We’ll also be presenting two big sessions on COVID-19, chaired by our Chief Scientific Office, Dan Weiss. These will be among our greatest achievements in this year’s program, allowing us to deliver a profound educational experience for everyone in the field.


The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the views of RegMedNet or Future Science Group.