The 6th Perinatal Stem Cell Society Congress: our conference report

Written by Alexander Marshall

The 6th Perinatal Stem Cell Society Congress took place in Salt Lake City (UT, USA) between 4—6 March 2020 and discussed how perinatal stem cells could impact the future of regenerative medicine.

The Perinatal Stem Cell Society (CA, USA) held its 6th congress in Salt Lake City (UT, USA) this year, showcasing the work being done in the conversion of stem cells from perinatal sources into clinical therapies. Having formed partly in response to the growing numbers of bad players within the regenerative medicine sector, the society aims to allow those who genuinely investigate perinatal tissues to come together and collaborate in a manner beneficial to the industry.

Perinatal stem cells have been a source of interest for many years, starting with the huge success of umbilical cord blood, which became licensed as a source of hematopoietic stem cells for bone marrow transplantations. The field has now diverged into investigating the regenerative potential of other perinatal tissues, including components of the umbilical cord blood beyond just the stem cells, mesenchymal stem cells within the cord tissue and the amniotic cells.

The conference kicked off with Kyle Cetrulo, President of the Perinatal Stem Cell Society, welcoming the attendees who, despite the pending coronavirus epidemic, had managed to fly in from around the world. Kyle went on to invite Renee Nordland to the stage. A self-described ‘mama-bear’, Renee told the story of her autistic son’s treatment with perinatal stem cells to highlight the impact such therapies can have.

For many, the concept of stem cell treatments for severe autism may trigger alarm bells, as it did me; however, the data presented by Joanne Kurtzberg (Duke School of Medicine, NC, USA) was enough to convince even the harshest critic of their potential. While many of the talks over the two days did rely on real world data, which have their place in informing decisions, Kurtzberg presented a collection of elegant clinical trials that were incredible to see, but also highlighted many of the issues in treating developing minds.

Fascinatingly, in one of Kurtzberg’s experiments, she found that the placebo effect could have a dramatic outcome, with nearly 50% of severely autistic children displaying improvements, according to their parents, despite being treated with the placebo. Yet, her results suggested that umbilical cord blood cells could be utilized to treat a subset of children with an IQ of >70, dramatically increasing their abilities compared to their placebo-receiving counterparts.

Exosomes played a large part in this year’s conference, with several speakers discussing their utilization into the regenerative medicine field. While many had hoped exosomes could represent a ‘cellular therapy without the cell’, avoiding many of the complexities of cellular therapies, anybody who listened to Rebecca Lim (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia), Duncan Ross (Kimera Labs, FL, USA), Ian White (REGENiSELF, FL, USA) or Tim Ganey (Vivex, GA, USA) should have been left with no delusions about the difficulties ahead.

The major issue for the field seemed to be one of exosome quality control: how do you ensure an exosome contains what it should? Exosomes and extra-cellular vesicles collected from cell media are not homogenous and a combination of various exosomes are produced from a single batch. This leaves the unfortunate situation where producers need to confirm their products, without the plethora of tests which have developed for cellular therapies. How to deal with this is a difficult question to answer and one, it seems, the field is just starting to understand the scale of. But for now, we are all still left wondering how do you utilize exosomes when they’re potentially just as variable as the cells they come from?

While the meeting did host academics and commercial enterprises designed to advance research, in attendance were a number of for-profit clinics, which may explain the feeling of unease which was palpable at the mere mention of the US FDA (MD, USA), which some certainly seemed to consider a beast threatening to devour many small businesses in the industry. Nearly three years ago, the FDA gave the industry a warning that misclassified medical approaches would not be ignored, but they would give the companies three years to correct their products. Two and a half years after, and the industry seem to have started to take notice, but many were left wondering if it was too late.

The Perinatal Stem Cell Society has recognized that their industry would be particularly hit by the FDA decision and held a panel to discuss the impact. A constructive, open discussion took place between the panel and the room, and it was encouraging to hear many of the individuals engaging with the FDA ruling.

You can read more about the FDA’s decision, the panel discussion and how the field will be impacted in general, in our upcoming article.

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