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December 07, 2010

What’s next for stem cell biology: Royal Society Meeting October 2010

by David Kent

My last post was mostly centred on the lack of openness displayed by a growing number of scientists, but failed to comment on the wonderful array of findings that were presented by world leaders in stem cell biology. The Royal Society Meeting that took place in October was definitely designed “for scientists” and the juggernauts came out in full force.  

The meeting started off with an excellent talk from Kazutoshi Takahasi in which he described a gene that looks to be able to distinguish induced pluripotent stem cells that are prone to developing tumours in mice from those that are not. This could be a massive advance for an emerging field that faces some serious questions about the safety of future therapeutics.  Sadly, the gene name was not given to the audience.

One of the most driven scientists I have encountered in my short time in research is Doug Melton, who after making seminal contributions to the field of reprogramming via nuclear transfer, completely switched his lab over to studying juvenile diabetes upon learning that his own child had the condition.  A great article on Doug Melton was written in 2005 that charts his journey. The pace at which the Melton lab has moved the juvenile diabetes field is remarkable. He has focused much attention on deriving insulin secreting beta cells from both ES and iPS cells and updated on this progress at the meeting. While researching a little for this article, I stumbled on a presentation not dissimilar from the one Dr. Melton gave at the meeting, which is a good overview of the process: it shows how chemicals added to ES/iPS cultures can help drive primitive cells to produce beta cells.

The final afternoon session began with a story that I first heard at the ISSCR meeting this past June, but definitely deserves mentioning again as it has become one of the hottest areas in cell biology.  Marius Wernig presented his group’s work on directly reprogramming skin cells into neural cells using a very similar approach to that of the Yamanaka group for iPS cells –- using neural cell transcription factors instead of pluripotency transcription factors.  The next few years are bound to be full of similar reports (e.g.: blood cells from skin cells) from the various tissue types as the reprogramming field continues to grow.

Directly following this talk was a sobering dose of reality from East of England Stem Cell Network Director Cathy Prescott, who spoke about the “business of iPS cells” and laid out a very convincing set of numbers showing that patient-specific iPS cells carry little to no ability to attract private sector investment due to high costs associated with patient-specific development and the lack of a commercializable product. 

Overall, the Royal Society put together a fantastic set of speakers and it was a real pleasure to attend (for free no less!). However, it makes me wonder: the British Royal Society academic meetings can attract prominent scientists from across the pond -- could it's Canadian counterpart organize an event with similar scope?   


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