Though the last day of the Till and McCulloch Meetings was a short one, it was absolutely fantastic. The day began with a thought-provoking talk by Douglas Sipp, from the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, touching upon the many issues surrounding regulation of stem cell therapies. I think as scientists, we often tend to forget that whether our work gets translated into therapies depends on more than simply its scientific value; learning that political opposition to the regulation of stem cell therapies uses the same playbook (and sometimes, even the same players) as the fight against tobacco and climate change regulation was eye-opening. My fellow blogger, Hamideh Emrani, has covered this talk in more depth. You can read her post here.
Another highlight of the day was delivered by Mohamad Khazaei, a trainee from Toronto Western Research Institute. His research focuses on improving the treatment of spinal cord injury through the use of modified iPS-derived neural precursors. He has identified, and proposed solutions for, two main issues: The formation of a glial scar and fate alteration combined with poor integration and survival of transplanted cells. His cells are modified to produce chondroitinase and GDNF; the former is able to degrade scar tissue, while the latter promotes the differentiation of his neural progenitors into neurons rather than astrocytes. His modified cells have improved survival and connectivity compared to controls, and show improvements in functional assays. This research appears to be incredibly promising.
My favorite talk of the day, however, was delivered by Rick Horwitz from the Allen Institute for Cell Science. He and his team are editing genes in human iPS cells (currently being differentiated into cardiomyocytes, but the eventual idea is to create all cell types) in order to fluorescently label, image and characterize all structures within the cell. The aim of the project is to create a thorough database of all structural information similar to the existing protein and genome databases. This initiative, like the Human Cell Atlas, which aims to map all cell types within the body, is likely to improve our ability to conduct biological research in a systematic manner like never before.
A formal database linking structure to function is, in essence, a periodic table for cells. Being able to understand how subcellular elements interact and how these interactions result in both aberrant and normal cellular behaviours will increase our predictive abilities by providing a clear framework to which comparisons can be made as new discoveries are made. More importantly, the project’s tools and results will be available widely, which will allow all cell researchers to perform their work more effectively by formulating better questions and having access to appropriate reagents.
As much as I enjoyed this talk, the whole day was an outstanding conclusion to a great edition of the Till and McCulloch Meetings.
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