With the ISSCR fully underway, Toronto is currently playing host to a who’s who of the international stem cell community. Each day I will give a brief glimpse into what is going on, summarizing some of the talks at the conference.
Things got started on Tuesday evening with a Stem Cell Network sponsored public symposium at the MaRS institute titled “The Stem Cell Promise: Moving to the Clinic”. The event had an very diverse panel composed of prominent clinicians working on stem cell therapies (Harry Atkins, Michael Fehlings), celebrity patient advocates (Roman Reed, Lisa Ray), as well as bioethicists (Tim Caulfield, Christopher Scott). The task of explaining the current state of stem cell research to the general public in an understandable manner is always a challenge, and with the addition of some prominent patient success stories I feared the event may inadvertently steer itself into the realm of stem cell “hype”. I was curious to see how the information would be presented, and really enjoyed the format which had panel split into three different diseases to which stem cell therapies are currently being applied; spinal cord repair, multiple sclerosis, and multiple myelomas. With such a large panel and fairly short-time frame, the event really succeeding at giving each of the participants a chance to voice their thoughts concisely, as well as interact with the large crowd that had filled the room. The patient advocates definitely followed familiar “success story” themes in their talks, which could be thought to be possess an inherent degree of hype that is present in any remarkable medical miracle. Importantly though, the clinicians and ethicists did an excellent job of adding the necessary grain of salt that a lot of this research is very preliminary. The take home message was that although things don’t always work perfectly, there is remarkable and rapid progress being made everyday in bringing these experimental therapies to patients worldwide.
On Wednesday the conference officially commenced, and the keynote speech was given by Robert Langer who addressed the numerous ways in which engineering and biomaterials may aid stem cell research in reaching its tremendous potential. His presentation moved quickly, touching on a wide variety of such applications in a rapid case-by-case manner. Biological stents where collagen scaffolds are seeded with smooth muscle cells and endothelial cells before being transplanted was presented as an example of the ways in which current biomaterials can be combined with regenerative strategies. He presented some remarkable animal data on the integration of biomaterial support with regenerative strategies for spinal cord injury, but was quick to add the results were very preliminary. Other potential uses included novel cell encapsulation materials, materials to influence in vitro cultured cell behavior, as well as some great videos demonstrating how polymers could be made to take on different conformations, or even tighten themselves into a knot when placed in liquids at body-temperature. The presentation was quite diverse and really grazed the surface of numerous potential areas of interplay between bioengineering and stem cell research but was very informative none the less and memorable due to Robert’s engaging and playful demeanor.
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