What is possible changes every day: a report from ISSCR 2018

In this conference report, Giovanni Canu (University of Cambridge) shares his experience as a first-time attendee of ISSCR 2018 (Melbourne, Australia, 20–23 June).

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Last week I had the chance to attend my first ISSCR Annual Meeting, held in the beautiful location of Melbourne, Australia. It brought together to the land down-under more than 3000 scientists from all over the world and with the most diverse variety of expertise surrounding the field of stem cell biology, from the study of developmental and differentiation mechanisms to disease modelling and drug screening in a dish, from novel approaches to gene editing and clinical applications to the finely tuned interplays happening in adult stem cell niches. There was something for every taste, which made definitely worth the 35 hours travel from the UK all the way down to this incredible event.

To stress this variety of science, the first day kicked off with a couple of talks able to cross the borders of the biological kingdoms, from the plant stem cells of Ben Scheres (Utrect University, the Netherlands) to the axolotl tissue regeneration potential of Elly Tanaka (Institute of Molecular Pathology, Austria). This was followed by a great lesson by the Innovation Award co-winner Graziella Pellegrini (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy): we must always publish negative results too! This is the only way to prevent other scientists from running towards wrong directions.

New technologies were a big presence in this ISSCR 2018. The newest and most widely used probably being single cell RNA sequencing (scRNAseq) techniques, giving the possibility to look at the transcriptome of individual cells in whole tissues and cell cultures in order to capture heterogeneity previously unseen. One of the talks embracing this new technology was given by Fredrik Lanner (The Karolinska Institute, Sweden), who was able to use the method to challenge the current concept surrounding human naïve pluripotent stem cells. He showed that they are not the in vitro counterpart of the pre-implantation embryo as generally thought, but that instead they are closer to a post-implantation stage, a step back in the developmental time compared to the more classic primed human embryonic stem cells (hESC) but yet not as early as so far believed.

An important feature of ISSCR was also the alternation between plenary and concurrent sessions, the latter forcing to the hard decision of which talks to attend and which to give up. On this note, a big help was given by the conference mobile app that allowed to easily mark talks of interest and create a personalized schedule to easily keep track of where to go and when.

Huge efforts to move towards clinical applications have also emerged during the meeting. On the cardiac side, Christine Mummery (Leiden University Medical Centre, the Netherlands) and Charles Murry (University of Washington, WA, USA) probably best represents two strategies using human pluripotent cells that might appear as opposite but at the same time are probably complementary to each other. The first presented impressive work using cardiomyocytes, cardiac endothelial cells and epicardial-derived fibroblasts to generate heart microtissues with a more mature phenotype, which is a great and promising system for drug testing and disease modelling using human induced pluripotent stem cells. The second showed long term remuscularization and function recovery of infarcted hearts in a macaque monkey model by direct injection of hESC-derived cardiomyocytes, an approach able to achieve results better than any other treatment currently available.

The diversity of science goes on, with the pancreatic organoids of Anne Grapin-Botton (University of Copenhagen, Denmark) showing the need of more complex structures to achieve maturation, or the brain organoids of Fred Gage (Salk Institute, CA, USA) with the incredible capacity of engrafting in the mouse brain, vascularizing and even forming synaptic connections. There was also the dorsal aorta on a chip of Vanessa Lundin (Boston Children's Hospital, MA, USA) to model mechanical forces controlling the generation of early haematopoietic stem cells, and Merav Socolovsky (University of Massachusetts Medical School, MA, USA) using scRNAseq to dissect erythroid commitment and maturation at the single cell level. Angelo Lombardo (San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy, Italy) showed the potential of modified CRISPR/CAS9 technologies to perform epigenetic targeting, and Leonard Zon (Harvard University, MA, USA) imaged endothelial cells wrapping and “cuddling” in vivo hematopoietic stem cells to form their niche in the zebrafish.

It would be impossible to give the right credit to all the wonderful scientists who made ISSCR 2018 a special event, a meeting made great also by the incredible amount of young investigators presenting their work for a total of 1400 scientific posters.

A special thanks go to the many sponsors who made the event possible, some of which also organized special post-science social events to bring together young scientists in a more informal environment. Thermo Fisher Scientific (MD, USA) gave a party in a beautiful aquarium and animal shelter which gave us the chance of meeting some local Australian heroes like a koala, a wombat and even a baby kangaroo, just to mention few. STEMCELL Technologies (BC, USA) hosted a special event at a 28th floor skybar with an incredible view over the whole city and used the occasion to announce the final results of their StemCellfie scientific image competition. I was the lucky winner with my heart-shaped colony derived from hematopoietic progenitors differentiated in vitro from human pluripotent stem cells in Ludovic Vallier’s lab in Cambridge, UK, where I’m currently finishing my PhD.

Finally, a special mention to two heartbreaking stories closing the 3rd day of this ISSCR: Daniel Feller’s (Genetic Cures Australia) young son and the Innovation Award co-winner Michele de Luca’s (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy) young patient, who are both receiving stem cell based treatments. Thanks to them, we were all able to remind ourselves of the reason why we are doing this and why basic research in the stem cell field is of fundamental importance.

Quoting Daniel Feller’s speech: “what is possible changes every day”, thanks to life-changing research.

Want more from ISSCR 2018? Read ISSCR2018 – The perspective of a second-time attendee and a local PhD student!

Go to the profile of Giovanni Canu

Giovanni Canu

PhD student, University of Cambridge

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