ISSCR: Vampires and stem cell research; the public wants to know

Stem cell researchers spoke at a public event for the kick-off of the annual International Society for Stem Cell Research meeting

It’s not often that the specter of vampires comes up at a meeting about stem cell research, but that’s what happened at a public event hosted by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston last night.

The event was a kind of public kick-off for the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the largest and probably the most important stem cell meeting in the world. Nine Harvard stem cell researchers, pre-eminent in their field, were each given five minutes to present an overview of their work – what one person described as a “scientific elevator speech” – and then take questions from the public.

The first speaker was Amy Wagers, PhD, who talked about the causes and consequences of aging and new approaches to trying to reverse some of those. Wagers described one fascinating experiment she did where she took the blood from young mice and transfused it into older mice – read our May blog on the subject. The older mice quickly began to act in a more energetic and youthful way; they had more energy and scans showed their hearts were more efficient and effective in pumping blood around the body.

That’s what prompted the vampire question. A young boy asked if she was planning on taking young people’s blood and transfusing it into older people. Wagers reassured him that wasn’t her goal and explained how she was looking for elements in the blood, rather than whole blood, that could help achieve the same goal of reversing some of the effects of aging. The boy seemed quite relieved.

Vampires aside, it was a fascinating evening with presenters whipping through a lifetime’s work in five minutes explaining how they are using stem cells to explore entirely new ways of treating diseases such as diabetes, ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and macular degeneration.

They talked about the importance of continuing to work with embryonic stem cells because they are the most studied and best understood kind of stem cell, but they also talked about the growing importance of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) – the kind that can be generated by taking, for example, a skin cell and then turning it back into an embryonic-like state and then reprogramming it into any other kind of cell in the body. These iPS cells are being used to gain a deeper understanding of diseases and to screen drugs to see if they would be effective against those diseases.

The next few days at the ISSCR conference in Boston are going to be devoted to some heavy duty science, with leading researchers from all over the world (including the CIRM grantees who we fund) discussing their work and presenting their findings. That’s why the public event was so important. It ensured that ordinary people – whose taxpayer dollars support much of this work – were also included in the conference and were given a chance to hear about the exciting work that is underway and the progress that is being made.

Over the next few days my colleague Don Gibbons and I will be blogging regularly from Boston to bring you the highlights. I can’t promise any more vampire stories, but I hope we’ll be able to bring you news of promising progress and developments.

KM

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