Signals Blog


The final day of the 2012 Till and McCulloch Meetings was packed with great science, but a common theme definitely emerged – technological advances are changing the way we think about and perform scientific research. Keynote speaker Helen Blau issued a warning about trying to mimic the stem cell niche outside the body, using an entertaining analogy of her son’s room being a niche and invoking the image of a mother trying (poorly) to reconstruct it. She catalogued her group’s recent efforts to understand the microenvironment of a stem cell and the discovery that stem cells performed rather poorly on rigid surfaces (such as the plasticware we typically use in labs) building on the their muscle stem cell paper in Science a couple of years back. Blau stressed the importance of using new technologies like hydrogels, bound substrates, and 3D surfaces to better design the “room” of a stem cell.

In the afternoon, conference delegates were treated to talks from Carl Hansen and Timm Schroeder who spoke about microfluidics and live cell tracking respectively. Hansen, a self-labeled biological “plumber”, preached the good news of small-scale biology.  Through a series of rapid developments over the last decade, the technology pioneered out of Steven Quake’s lab at Stanford has emerged as one of the best ways for biologists to test simultaneously the properties and functions of their cells. Hansen asserts that doing small-scale reactions (nL to pL volumes) reduces the chance of introducing biological variation and saves oodles of cash, driving home the sales pitch with the detection of transcripts at the single molecule level. Hansen (and his PhD student Veronique Lecault earlier in the meeting) highlighted recent papers describing the development and use of several microfluidic devices (high throughput qPCR), and single stem cell cultures that had the crowd buzzing with questions like “when can I get this in my lab?”

Immediately following Hansen, Timm Schroeder took to the podium and gave a powerful talk about how time-lapse imaging can help us answer longstanding questions in cell biology by incorporating time into our analysis. Schroeder makes an extremely compelling case for the value of descriptive biology, letting the cells show biologists how they behave on an individual level. After recapping the big stories from his lab, which were recently published on fundamental questions about the origins of blood stem cells and the intrinsic and extrinsic mechanisms operative in blood progenitors, Schroeder gave us a sneak peek into his lab’s next story – whether or not two transcription factors (PU.1 and Gata1) compete to direct fate choices in primitive blood cells. Using reporter genes to track their expression, Schroeder suggests that it might not be as much of a battle as has been previously speculated.

Overall, the 2012 Meetings sent stem cell scientists home with some pretty powerful messages around embracing technology and collaborating widely with experts as well as a strong indication to those who might be inclined that Canada is serious about innovation and commercialization in the field of regenerative medicine.

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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.