After a fun night socialising, the stem cell science kicked off again in earnest on Friday morning. The morning session turned to ‘Cell and Gene Therapy’ – the final goal of many at the meeting. David Williams and Alesandra Biffi provided fascinating insights into the past and future of the gene therapy field, with a particular focus on gene delivery using haematopoeitic stem cells (HSCs). It’s good to see that the gene therapy has had somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, in part due to its interface with stem cell biology. The ethical dilemmas that these experimental therapies undoubtedly raise were summarised and expanded upon by Nancy King, while Sarah Ferber described a different approach to regenerative medicine, detailing her work on transdifferentiation of liver to pancreas as a potential therapy for diabetes. The final talk of the morning plenary came from Charles Murry who works on cardiac regeneration. He described the challenges – financial, practical and scientific – of using the non-human primate (NHP) as a model to study cell therapy for cardiac disease. Indeed, throughout the conference there have been frequent discussions about how we can properly characterise human pluripotent cells and their derivatives, and many have expressed the opinion that validating findings in the NHP is an important step. Murry’s contribution certainly focussed the debate on both the trials and benefits of such an approach. The sight of human ES cell-derived cardiomyocytes integrating and apparently functioning in vivo in the NHP heart was certainly a very exciting end to the morning plenary– regardless of your stance on NHP research.
The concurrent sessions included epigenetics, HSCs, chemical conrol of stem cell behaviour, organ development, stem cell therapies and germ cell biology. The two main speakers in the germ cell session were presenting on haploid ES cells – an exciting new tool in stem cell biology. Jinsong Li provided a good overview of the field and his own work in the mouse system, before describing the successful derivation of NHP haploid ES cells. Josef Penninger focussed on the application of mouse haploid cells for genetic screens and his belief that ‘yeast genetics’ is now possible in mammalian cells. He also plans to make the powerful platforms his lab has developed accessible to the whole community – a massive undertaking for which he deserves a great deal of credit. Robin Hobbs brought the focus back to germline developmental biology with his latest insights into Tsc2-mTORC1 signalling in spermatogonial stem cells and I was delighted to be able to share some of my work on the connection between pluripotency and the germline. Concurrent session 2 featured many more exciting presentations, including sessions on immunology, cancer and chromatin regulation – something for everything on another full day of science.
In the evening Shinya Yamanaka hosted the president’s reception at the lavish Harvard Club in town. In an entertaining speech he revealed that the phone call from Stockholm interrupted his attempts to fix his washing machine – ‘luckily I don’t have to do this any more’ he quipped!