Trainee talks – where you hear about the really cool stuff

Author: David Kent, 10/30/14

One of the consistent themes of the Till and McCulloch Meetings (#TMM2014) is its commitment to having students and postdocs on stage presenting their work. These sessions have been regularly cited by my colleagues as the most interesting and engaging sessions with the most new data. The last few meetings they have called these sessions “Under the Microscope” – a playful title that hides the fact that this series of 15-minute talks from the best abstracts are the neatest new stuff in Canadian stem cell science.

These sessions have been regularly cited by my colleagues as the most interesting and engaging sessions with the most new data.

I was very impressed by Raedun Clarke’s (Keller lab) comprehensive in vitro system for detecting the various stages of blood cell production, implicating notch and Stat1 signaling as key nodes of developmental distinction. She ended with a Hematopoietic Trailmap that offers a glimpse into where cells might originate in the culture dish as they progress from embryonic stem cells – something central to harnessing the power of pluripotent cell differentiation into clinically useful cell products.

Several talks later, Daniel Coutu (former SCN trainee now in Zurich with Timm Schroeder) showcased a pretty cool technology aimed at finding skeletal stem cell populations. Coutu argued that more than 400 clinical trials existed that purported to use mesenchymal or skeletal stem cells without any markers or assays to detect them… he contended that this was a major reason why there was so much uncertainty about whether or not such trials were showing success – and I must say I totally agree.

Coutu outlined his quest to find skeletal stem cells – numerous markers have been tried in isolation, but Coutu set out to find out how well they overlapped and how well they correlated with each other. Using the individual fluorescence data from cells isolated from both the trabecular bone and the long bone portion of the femur, he performed cluster analysis to identify 20 distinct cell populations that could be isolated from amongst the several million possible combinations of marker positive and/or marker negative populations.   He then performed bone sectioning studies on material to get a sense of where these populations are located in vivo by performing 10-colour immunostaining – an incredible number of markers for a confocal microscopy study. The process is arduous and takes a full month to do all the stains and analysis for this many parameters, but the pictures that can be constructed are pretty impressive.

Unfortunately, this represents the very preliminary stages of the work and as Fabio Rossi questioned Coutu on the functional output of these novel populations, it became clear that more work needed to be done. However, this is a major technological step forward since the number of parameters that can typically be studied in these assays is quite limiting. The technology therefore opens up many opportunities to understand the niche of the bone marrow, which has been traditionally quite difficult due to its lack of rigid architecture.

It’s this kind of exciting new advance that is not quite complete that often emerges in these types of sessions and they really represent a great place for discussion and also for exposure to the newest and most exciting technologies and/or experimental setups. I wish more meetings were so dedicated to pushing students and postdocs to the stage — conferences would benefit enormously from letting trainees shine.

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David Kent

David Kent

Principal Investigator at University of Cambridge
Dr. David Kent is a Principal Investigator at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute ( His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009. He has been writing for Signals since 2010.
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One Response

  1. Lisa Willemse says:

    Your post emphasizes just how good these sessions are and the depth of the field — since the two talks you profiled were not among the winning presentations emerging from these sessions. The two that were selected for awards from the Under the Microscope Talks, announced at the close of the meeting yesterday were Will Wang (Rudnicki lab, OHRI) who spoke on “Aurora kinase A determines cellular asymmetry in muscle stem cell self-renewal” and Peter Tonge (Nagy lab, Lunenfeld-Tannenbaum RI), on “Divergent reprogramming routes lead to alternative stem cell states”. Great stuff.

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