Wow. Big conference
Over four thousand stem cell biologists were welcomed by Nobel Laureate and ISSCR President Shinya Yamanaka in the opening address of the 11th Annual Symposium of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, and in a hall with 8 huge screens beaming the plenary lectures across a massive conference hall it certainly felt like the whole international stem cell community was in attendance. Clearly, stem cell biology is a broad church and this was certainly evident from the talks on Day 1 which included old-school developmental biology, cancer biology, hardcore in vivo imaging, single-cell tracking, tissue homeostasis, epigenetics, regenerative medicine, basic cell biology and political intrigue as well.
James Thomson opened proceedings with a talk concentrating on the political and financial challenges that accompanied his quest to derive human embryonic stem (ES) cells, a stark reminder of the unique ability of stem cell biology to break ethical as well as scientific boundaries. Doug Melton provided a clear and thought provoking update on his lab’s quest to make physiologically relevant pancreatic beta cells and Edith Heard gave an interesting talk looking at the reciprocal relationship between pluripotency and X-chromosome reactivation. Rick Young presented his recent work on ‘super-enhancers’ while Elaine Fuchs delivered the Anne McLaren Memorial Lecture with aplomb, detailing her lab’s pioneering work on skin stem cells.
With 20 minute slots the talks were short and sharp, it was certainly interesting to see the big names forced to deal with the ‘short talk’ format usually reserved for post-docs and graduate students. Surprisingly there was no time available for questions, which was a shame as many were raised. I was slightly nervous that this would set the tone for the rest of the day, with presidential addresses and no chance for discussion or debate, which for me is the whole purpose of attending a conference. However, the second session reverted to a more standard format; still fantastic talks from top scientists, but with time for questions from the floor and more interaction. The overall theme shifted towards imaging technology and the importance of single cell analysis. Charles Lin demonstrated just how far the current live cell imaging technology can be pushed by those seeking to ask important in vivo questions about stem cell behaviour, Paul Frenette detailed his lab’s work to characterise the haematopoietic stem cell (HSC) bone marrow niche and Tim Shroeder gave an excellent account of how much can be learned just by ‘looking’ carefully at in vitro cell behaviour. He certainly showed provocative data regarding the concepts of bistability and heterogeneity both in the blood and pluripotent stem cell systems. George Daley rounded the day off with a talk which demonstrated that stem cell biology and developmental biology are one and the same thing – with the focus on his particular interest in developing in vitro HSC technology.
The ensuing poster session only served to emphasise the sheer scale of the meeting, with posters as far as the eye could see. Where to begin? However, the free bar certainly got the creative juices flowing and many discussions spilled over into Boston’s many night spots. Needless to say I was a little ‘tired’ this morning but I’ll try and find out if I missed any major advances in iPS cell disease modelling (this morning’s plenary session). The afternoon will proceed with concurrent sessions – pluripotency for me – which will be larger than many normal conferences! Hopefully there will be more fantastic science to update you on tomorrow.