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8 posts from June 2011

June 30, 2011

Entrepreneurial scientists: Moving from being outliers to everyday researchers

by Paul Krzyzanowski

Success in a research career is solely defined by ones ability to churn out great academic papers, right?

Don’t be so sure.

It’s true that successful research careers can be launched with a Science or Nature paper, but many skills other than purely academic ones are increasingly being recognized as important.

On this blog, David Kent recently discussed the requirement for scientists to be aware of governmental policies, clinical trials, and therapies outside of their own research, while Ben Paylor explained how important mastering science communications and the web are, particularly to engage the public.

In a world where a glut of university graduates exists, the standard package of courses and experience in many programs no longer places people on a fixed career path. Even alumni of law and medical schools are not immune to the challenging job market, reports Nature, and there are no longer any guarantees of employment upon graduation:

Continue reading "Entrepreneurial scientists: Moving from being outliers to everyday researchers" »

June 24, 2011

Stem cells as superheroes

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Please read this article on its new home, Signals BlogStem cells as superheroes

June 21, 2011

View from the floor: ISSCR final day

By Ben Paylor

The final day of the 9th annual ISSCR meeting was truly a memorable one, with several excellent talks and touching moments. An incredibly moving presentation by Charles Sabine in the morning stands out, and I fear my description will not do it justice. For many, I expect his talk was the highlight of the entire symposium, as his eloquence and gripping human story brought tears to the eyes of many of the audience members. An Emmy winning news-anchor who broadcasted with NBC for 26 years, Charles has reported from the front lines of some of the most chilling humanitarian crises around the world. But his presence at the ISSCR was due to a condition more terrifying than the plethora of horrible events he has witnessed. A sufferer and patient advocate for Huntington’s disease, Charles described how the disease had taken the life of the his father, crippled his brother, and will one day leave his body a mere shadow of what it is today, a fact he learned six years ago after being tested for the disorder. His story was terrifying indeed, but his talk focused on a principle human emotion: hope. His overall message was one of promise and gratitude, thanking the members of the ISSCR for working on a field of medical research that will one day provide answers for the debilitating disease he suffers from. The talk was truly a unique experience, and one that will stay with many of the conference attendees as they travel back to their respective homes.

His story was not the only touching personal moment on the last day. Shinya Yamanaka and his student Kazutoshi Takahashi received the McEwen Centre Award for Innovation, providing numerous humorous anecdotes in their reception speeches, such as Dr. Takahashi noting that numerous factors had “fully reprogrammed his life”. It was again an emotional experience with the pair expressing heartfelt gratitude as they offered a brief glimpse into their incredibly fascinating and successful story. The day held numerous interesting talks as well, such as Christine Mummery’s description of the applications of iPS-derived cardiomyocytes for cardiac safety pharmacology, Li Qian’s report on in vivo reprogramming of cardiac fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes and Peter Coffey presenting his work on regenerative therapies for use in treating macular degeneration (a talk quite similar to the one he gave at the 2010 SCN Scientific Meeting last fall). The conference was closed with the 4th Annual Anne McLaren Memorial lecture given by Nicole Le Douarin. Her talk focused on a somewhat historical evaluation of the multipotent nature of stem cells from the neural crest and their highly invasive behavior during development.

The ISSCR is an incredible event to attend -- both the quantity and the quality of the scientific data presented at the conference are extremely high. The focus is principally on basic science, with limited clinical work being presented, but the names on all the biggest papers you’ve been reading each day at work are there to see and speak with. Contrasting it with the SCN Scientific Meeting, ISSCR is certainly less personal and open, a fact that makes one appreciate the incredible stem cell community that we have here in Canada. With the 2012 ISSCR being held in Yokohama, Japan next summer I can only hope to have the opportunity to participate in such a thought provoking and educational experience. 


June 18, 2011

View from the floor: ISSCR day 3

By Ben Paylor

Shinya Yamanaka, vice president of the ISSCR, soon-to-be McEwen Centre Award for Innovation recipient, and a leader in the field of iPS cell generation, opened day three of the 2011 ISSCR conference with a presentation titled “Induction of Pluripotency by Defined Factors”. The main hall was surprisingly crowded at 9:00 am given the somewhat rowdy Junior Investigator Night Club Party at This is London the night before, perhaps a testament to the significance of his work. Dr. Yamanaka addressed recent reports describing some troubling differences between iPS and hES cells. Data from his lab in Japan showed that these differences are not as dramatic as others might think, with a high degree of similarity in regards to DNA methylation, gene expression, capacity for differentiation and immunogenicity. Of interest if this new and exciting cell type is going to be clinically relevant, autologous iPS transplantation was tolerated far better than allograft ES transplantation, highlighting one of the many important aspects of iPS cells. A second story he told was about Glis1, a transcription factor which is highly expressed in unfertilized eggs and rapidly down-regulated following fertilization, and he described its ability to promote the generation of iPS cells. Using the allegory of a ball rolling from an undifferentiated state down a steep slope to a mature differentiated state, Dr. Yamanaka explained that perhaps this slope is not as steep as we have previously thought and the genetic changes required for cells to move towards a pluripotent state not as dramatic as some might think. He ended by encouraging all ISSCR members to attend the 10th annual ISSCR meeting next year in Yokohama, and added a warming personal note by thanking the international community for its tremendous support following the recent disasters in Japan.

In the afternoon, a plenary session on “Stem Cell Metabolism and Aging” featured talks by Irina Conboy and Amy Wagers on our current understanding of how age regulates stem cell function, focusing on their work in skeletal muscle. Both presentations were well done and made reference to previous work by Dr. Conboy in which young and old mice were parabiosed together, leading to a restoration of satellite cell function in the old partner. Dr. Wagers has followed up on these reports using similar experiments to investigate age-dependent regulation of stem cell function in other tissues, and reported that similar trends were found in models of cardiac hypertrophy as well as remyelination studies. TGFß was reported to have a central role in this phenomenon, but the contribution of additional cytokines, as well as accessory inflammatory cells and metabolic regulators remains to be completely elucidated. Dr. Wagers' data on the changes in satellite cell function in different dietary conditions led smoothly into a closing joke about taking caution in one's indulgence during the reception that evening. The talks, “Modifying Regenerative Potential and Cell Fate Within Myogenic Lineage” by Dr. Conboy and “Modulators of Stem Cell Regenerative Function in Skeletal Muscle” by Dr. Wagers were very complementary and worked well to give a detailed overview of their research and its potential.

June 17, 2011

View from the floor: ISSCR day 2

By Ben Paylor

Although elsewhere in Canada there are some very troubling consequences arising from a group not living up to their potential (I refer to the rioting hooligans and not the Canucks), the realization of potential happening here at the ISSCR couldn’t be more different. There is a great sense of excitement and buzz surrounding the wide variety of presentations, which cover the entire breadth of stem cell research being conducted worldwide, With over 4,000 members in attendance, the ISSCR is the largest stem cell conference in the world and we are lucky to have it here this year. A quick glance at the 1,400 poster abstracts and one finds 270 categorized as embryonic stem cells, 180 on mesenchymal stem cells (a term Irv Weissman yesterday suggested should be used with more scrutiny), 200 on inducible pluripotent stem cells and reprogramming, 150 on stem cell technology and tissue engineering, and nearly 350 on a menagerie of tissue-specific stem cells. The sheer quantity of talks and posters can be a little bit daunting, but the opportunity for learning, networking, and collaboration makes the stakes too high for one to be overwhelmed.

Screen shot 2011-06-16 at 9.12.22 PM Hans Clevers, the director of the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, closed the morning plenary session, “Tissue Stem Cell Origins”. His talk on a population of stem cells labeled by LRG5 was excellent, aided by numerous colorful and understandable CGI animations of the data they were generating. Following the observation that LRG5 labels a specific progenitor cell population in the intestinal crypts, his group employed a number of lineage tracing strategies to elegantly show how a single group of stem cells can continually divide and differentiate in order to repopulate this organ which continually regenerates through mammalian life. The use of the Rainbow reporter strain to this effect produced some very revealing (and colorful) data demonstrating how this repopulation occurred. The ability of a single LRG5+ cell from the crypt to generate clonal structures he termed as “miniguts” was remarkable, with this effect being improved if the cells were isolated as doublets with their paracrine partners, paneth cells. By combining CGI animation with elegant data, his talk provided a very clear and comprehensive overview of some of the work being done at the Hubrecht Institute.

In the afternoon, the main auditorium was stirred up somewhat by Thea Tlsty’s presentation describing the isolation and characterization of pluripotent stem cells from adult mammary tissue. The time available for questions was very limited, and a number of members of the audience, myself included, wish there had been a little more time to discuss the results and their significance. Later in the afternoon, the inaugural Ernest McCulloch Memorial Lecture was given by John Dick on the genetic diversity of leukemia initiating cells. It was a captivating and detailed presentation outlining the need for standardization of experimental design in the field of cancer stem cells, as well as a comprehensive update on characterization of HSC developmental hierarchy. Controversy surrounding the concept of cancer stem cells is well known in the field, and Dr. Dick argued that perhaps competing theories need not be considered to be mutually exclusive. He conceptually outlined how clonal evolution and cancer stem cell hypothesis are perhaps more complementary than some might think, and presented some data from an acute lymphoblastoma leukemia model which supports this theory. It was an excellent end to day 2 of the conference.

Photo: LRG5 labelled cells in intestinal crypts, Hans Clevers lab

June 15, 2011

View from the floor: ISSCR day one

By Ben Paylor

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.


June 14, 2011

Fifty years

In the scientific world, 50 years can be an eternity. Consider the fruit fly or certain cells – organisms whose lifespan is counted in hours or days. Or, it can be the blink of an eye when compared to the progression of an ice flow, for instance.

In the field of stem cells, 50 years marks a milestone worthy of celebration. Though the existence of a master cell had been posited for much longer, it was just 50 years ago that these cells and their characteristics were identified. It happened here in Canada, in Toronto, in the lab of Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with our pride and respect for Till and McCulloch. Until now, we had not formally written about the 50th anniversary of their discovery and with the arrival of close to 4000 delegates to the International Society for Stem Cell Research this week in Toronto, we thought now was as fitting a time as ever.

But, we’re not the first to write or talk about this critical moment in the history of stem cells (nor are we likely to be the last). Others have done it far more eloquently and imaginatively, and others still will be speaking in the days to come. Here’s a list of things to read, view or attend in honour of two of the most important people this field has yet to see:

  • With the recent passing of Dr. McCulloch, a pair of noteworthy obituaries by former students Ron Worton and Norman Iscove.
  • A symposium in honour of Dr. McCulloch will be held on June 15 starting at 9:00am at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, in association with the ISSCR annual meeting (meeting registration required).
  • Recorded at the StemCellTalks event in 2010, here’s Jim Till talking to Janet Rossant about his early work with Dr. McCulloch.
  • Jim Till’s mini video, created by the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation
  • A sneak peek at the Stem Cell Network’s annual report, which features a story about the Canadian legacy of Till and McCulloch.
  • For something a little bit different, the Super Cells: The Wonder of Stem Cells exhibition is running at the Ontario Science Centre through September 2011. The exhibit features artwork inspired by stem cells, including fashion pieces made in tribute to Till and McCulloch.

Finally, worth noting is the pending publication of a book about Till and McCulloch, which will be released this fall by the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation and the University of Toronto Press. A limited number of autographed copies can be pre-ordered. We’re excited about the arrival of this book, which tells the story not just of stem cells, but of the remarkable men behind it.


June 08, 2011

Science communications: everybody's doing it

By Ben Paylor, University of British Columbia

Science and the way it is distributed are changing. One of the principle forces driving this change is the very media through which you read these words. The Internet. Not only can you find an answer to almost any simple question you post, now there are thousands of people pushing their thoughts and preferences on any possible topic in your direction. This means that a traditionally type-cast incommunicable group (scientists) has extremely accessible and powerful tools at their fingertips which don’t require them to choose every word precisely, navigate publication politics and jump through editors flaming rings. Instead they are able to spill whatever it is that is on their minds.

A recent article in Nature entitled “Of Course Scientists Can Communicate” tackled the myth that scientists are poor communicators. Scientists are trained to write in a certain way for a certain audience, namely the scientist community through peer-reviewed journals, and the change in tone, language and focus required to communicate with the public is often ignored. To provide evidence against the notion that scientists don’t have silver-tongues, examples of Carl Sagan, Humphry Davy and Jacob Bronowski are invoked. Notable exceptions indeed, but interesting to note that none of these inspired science communicators had the Internet at their fingertips. Science communication has moved from the mouths of a select high-profile few, to everyone who has learned that communicating what we do is not only important, but also incredibly easy and fun to do. This phenomenon is certainly present in the stem-cell community with myriad of public outreach programs having emerged around the world to promote understanding to both the general public and fellow scientists alike. Given the elevated level of attention surrounding stem cell research, it is clear that communicating the current state of this field to the public is very important. So who is taking up the task?

One doesn’t have to search very hard to access a wealth of engaging, educational and, perhaps most importantly, free material for this purpose. The University of Utah’s “Teach Genetics” page has been providing high quality educational resources to teachers for a number of years; the site includes a “Stem Cell” page. With numerous animations and activities designed for the classroom, resources such as these make teaching stem cell science an accessible and fun choice for teachers. Apart from institutional efforts, we can also find inspiration in the blogosphere. One of several notable examples, Ed Yong’s blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, recently featured an excellent post utilizing a dipity timeline to chart the progress of iPS research to the current day. By combining new Web 2.0 resources with thorough background research and excellent communication skills, Ed Yong gives us a powerful example of what happens when talented and interested individuals take science communication into their own hands.


Stepping away from the Internet, another approach to stem cell outreach has been to engage young students before they get to the University level. In California, Laurel Barchas, a graduate of Berkeley, designed a number of stem cell based high-school curriculum modules for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. CIRM then pitched the initiatives to state education committees and these modules are now available state-wide with plans to expand the program nationally. The free curriculum resources, which address numerous science education elements through  integration of stem cell based educational material, were highly attractive to high school science teachers, who are keen to adopt new and relevant material.

If you read this blog extensively then you should be no stranger to another success story, which has emerged from the stem cell community in Canada, StemCellTalks. Originally conceived and implemented in Toronto by Paul Cassar, Angela MacDonald and David Grant, StemCellTalks promotes engagement of talented young high school students, enthusiastic grad students and leading researchers during a day-long symposium which addresses current scientific and ethical topics surrounding stem cell research. The annual project is now in its sophomore year in Toronto and has expanded to numerous institutes nationwide; satellite symposia have been held in both Vancouver and Ottawa with numerous others planned events for 2012 (Halifax, Calgary, Hamilton). This “trickle-up” approach of engaging and educating high school students is clearly one that works.

The upcoming ISSCR conference in Toronto has provided an excellent stage for stem cell researchers to pause and take note of stem cell outreach initiatives occurring around the globe. “An Informed Society – How to participate in public science education and why it matters”, a satellite symposium taking place on June 15th at 9am, aims to bring together people involved with stem cell outreach from around the globe. The goal of the event is not only to educate the participants on the process of stem cell outreach, but also to provide a framework around which individuals involved in public science education from around the world can network and collaborate. If you are attending the ISSCR and are interested in the topic, I recommend you stop by.

But be warned, with all the information out there today, it’s easy to get so predisposed to listening that you stop thinking that you have something to say yourself.