How do cells give rise to the functional architecture of the brain? This is no longer a neuroscience-only question. Indeed, it is a cellular, genetic, developmental, mechanical, and material problem that requires experts from all of these disciplines working together to understand how the brain works! Yet, from this architectural design perspective, it is very hard to unite the leaders in these distinct fields of research to find an answer to this complex problem. Excitingly, this was exactly what happened at the Company of Biologists workshop entitled “Thinking beyond the dish: taking in vitro neural differentiation to the next level” organized by Madeline Lancaster and Denis Jabaudon. As some of the early-career researchers invited to participate, we each provide our perspectives on this amazing workshop and we are extremely grateful to the organizers and the Company of Biologists for putting this together.
Group Leader, Centre for Cancer Biology, SA Pathology and the University of South Australia
Being myself a mechano-biologist, I was very excited about the brain organoids developed by Madeline Lancaster and Jürgen Knoblich and I became more curious on what would be next, what is the future of this technology, something that seems is becoming closer to science fiction. This was the key layout for this meeting: Thinking “beyond” the dish…., which by far exceeded my expectations.
The meeting was small but excellent. We had great talks on how we can create different types of materials to manipulate almost all class of its properties, and now, more excitingly, doing it precisely in space and time, to control cell behavior. We had also geneticists who show how single cell transcriptomics allows the creation of “expression trees” that link all the different cells that form these minibrains and described the genetic network architectures that contribute to the robustness of brain development in the early mammalian embryo (so everyone looks similar during gestation) but which then diversifies when we become more mature (so everyone looks different later). It was also really exciting how using this technology now it is possible to establish neural circuits based on organoids and also how these could contribute, for example, to the restoration of brain tissue to improve recovery in brain cancer patients after the resection of the tumor.
But where do we go now? We discussed it a lot through this meeting and my feeling is that we are still far from being able to integrate all these aspects because of its complexity and some limitations of the approach, to be able to make entire brains in the dish. But we are seeing the light on this technology to understand in a more physiologically relevant setting the fundamentals of the brain architecture and how is it affected in different type of diseases, for which strong interdisciplinary interactions are crucial. This meeting has seeded the grounds to be able to do it and gave me the chance to meet the leaders in these interdisciplinary areas, which has really fueled me with ideas and new perspectives about this problem. This is exactly what I needed at this very early stage of my independent career.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich, Germany.
I first became aware of the Company for Biologists workshops at the recommendation of one of my mentors, who suggested I would really enjoy the topic – and the format. She was right. If selected, I could have one of 10 coveted early-career scientist spots, and join 20 senior thought leaders in my field to learn about the latest research, discuss future directions, and potentially build collaborations. So I put in an application for the workshop entitled “Thinking beyond the dish: taking in vitro neural differentiation to the next level”, and got to attend from 4 – 7 February 2018. For a psychiatric geneticist looking to update our available in vitro model systems for the human brain using organoids, this seemed just perfect.
I was quite thrilled to test my research and ideas with a topically diverse audience, yet intimately focused on one important topic. How can cerebral organoids, one of the most promising developments of recent years, achieve the status of ‘workhorse of neuroscience’? I credit the organizers, Denis Jabaudon and Madeline Lancaster, for bringing together an eclectic group of scientists and engineers who covered the spectrum from neurodevelopment to bioengineering to psychiatry. The talks were wonderful for laying out the complex problem ahead, and the strides currently being made toward addressing it. The venue – a historical stately manor named Wiston house cradled between rolling green hills occupied by sheep (even in February!) – provided the perfect familiarity to foster discussion and exchange of ideas that would lead to collaborations worthy of speeding up discovery and innovation.
After 4 days of intense learning, exquisite meals, and stimulating discussions over drinks, I left inspired and motivated. I feel confident that cerebral organoids will be exponentially improved in the coming years, leading to tremendous advances of our understanding of uniquely-human brain development and its response to environmental perturbation. For a molecular biologist focused on understanding the brain and mental illness, this is an exciting time.
PhD Student, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
When I read about this workshop being organized by the Company of Biologists on their website, I immediately sent in an application to attend it. My project deals with developing in vitro models of early development using bioengineering technologies. Although, my graduate studies have focused mostly on investigating the induction of mesendodermal tissues, our latest results have diverted my research interests toward studying the ectodermal lineages including the early specification of neural fates. Given that this workshop was focused on in vitro models of neural fates, and that it gave the attendees opportunities to network with the key opinion leaders in the field, I was extremely excited when I was given the chance to attend it.
This workshop far exceeded all my expectations. First and foremost, the organization of the workshop was exceptional! In terms of the content, I truly enjoyed hearing about the extent of progress that has been made in the field of neural organoids. The format that the organizers had chosen included a daily discussion group where the group discussed concerns that the field has and where they think the field is headed. As an early career scientist, I found these sessions incredibly valuable. Notably, one of the scientific concerns that seemed to be prevalent amongst the group was the variability between different pluripotent stem cell lines in generating the downstream organoids. An important aspect of our latest study deals with this very issue and I was very excited to hear that the key opinion leaders in the field are also looking into the same questions.
Overall, this workshop is one of the best meetings I’ve attended, and I would highly recommend these Company of Biologists workshops to everyone but especially to early career scientists.
MS student, Biomedical Engineering, Boston University, USA
Between the 3, or was it 5 or 6?, course meals, there was indeed great science being discussed! With armfuls (quite literally) of beers being consumed in the “cozy” backroom, great collaborations were set up well past midnight. Set in a victorian mansion, replete with a full time staff, including a most scholarly house historian, this workshop was truly an experience. If you ever wondered what it would be like to be a member of British high society like Barry Lyndon, look no further.
Biologists talking with engineers was the theme. Despite being an engineer and biologist myself, I was exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking nonetheless. For example, what is development? Is it self-assembly or self-organization? Is it special? The most brief of side conversations offered some of the most interesting ideas. Ideas that kept me thinking well after the workshop and have already caused me to take a fresh look at my own work, with good results.
Perhaps the most unique (and truly invaluable) aspect of the workshop was its laid back nature. Participants were encouraged to present unpublished data (non-disclosure was assured). In many ways, it was like a big informal lab meeting. For the young scientists, the workshop is a unique chance to make your name known and your ideas heard. It was a most interesting look into the future, for which I thank the organizers.
All in all, I left disappointed – this being my first real conference that I have attended, all future conferences and workshops are likely to pale in comparison. How many of them will have staff constantly offering you a cup of tea or coffee (an assortment of treats already laid out in the adjacent parlor)?
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
What do you get when you take a group of developmental biologists, chemists, bioengineers and neuroscientists away from their daily routines in the lab and put them together in a countryside manor near Brighton, England? The answer is not the punchline to a joke, but instead a seriously productive three days full of introspection and discussion of the pressing issues facing the respective field that unites the interested parties.
The Company of Biologists and conference organisers should be commended on their excellent approach to realizing the formula for a smooth and seamless meeting where inhibitions and impediments to open discussion are rapidly dissolved and a vibrant exchange of ideas and information takes their place. Despite the very formal setting, people were rapidly acquainted and exchanging information and ideas for collaboration. Combined with the fact that everyone presented, and everyone presented unpublished work, allowed for an open and frank forum for discussion. The exposure to fields outside one’s own was an excellent way to survey the current state of play in that field and germinate ideas for collaboration which were later crystallised over a drink in the bar or a walk (or run) in the woods.
There is a proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. While there is a rich history of developmental biology, the emerging field that uses stem cell science to explore aspects of tissue formation is very much in its infancy, and indeed requires the specialist inputs from the ‘village’ as a whole. To be surrounded by bright, talented and enthusiastic bioinformaticians, biologists and engineers, all of whom have at least temporarily assembled as a village makes me very optimistic about the future of the field going forwards.