stem cells in their environment

Three half conferences

06 January 2015
By Davide Danovi

'Institut Curie, Paris – venue for Biophenics 2nd High Throughput Cell Biology'

Pick three conferences spanning just over a week, each over two days. Arbitrarily choose just one day of each, shake it through the Eurostar tunnel, filter through the floating notes and let it rest for about a month, in time for the New Year.

What you are left with here (views are entirely my own) is an excerpt – biased, and by no means exhaustive – of a few talks from the following events in November 2014:

A recent EU ban on animal testing for cosmetics makes protocols that model skin barrier in vitro particularly appealing for this purpose. Our neighbour Dr Dusko Ilic (Reader in Stem Cell Science, Division of Women's Health, King's College London) introduced a laboratory grown model of epidermis with a functional barrier. A skin barrier is obtained with a change in the culture conditions, simply by withdrawing the water tray and thus obtaining drier environment in the cell incubators. Cells are derived from both human embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells. These culture conditions can be adapted to cGMP requirements and scaled up for industrial purposes.

Talking about big industry, it is way too rare in my opinion to hear scientific data from industry presentations; and some companies are more prone than others to engage openly in scientific debates with academia. Dr Beverley Isherwood (Team Leader High Content Biology, Innovative Medicines, AstraZeneca R&D) described phenotypic compound profiling at the company; Dr Anna Ramne (Senior Research Scientist, AstraZeneca) described culture and applications of human beta-cells in drug discovery; and Dr Thierry Dorval (Associate Principal Scientist, AstraZeneca) gave an interesting description of how to extract further content from the data coming from dose response curve in cell based assays. One should always consider the possibility of hidden sub-populations of cells particularly sensitive to specific compounds doses. These could be lurking between the pixels of many oddly fitting dose curve shapes in high throughput or high content screenings.

A fascinating debate, that has filled blogs on its own, centres around the pros and cons of phenotype versus targeted screening. Dr Neil Carragher (Principal Investigator Drug Discovery, Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre, University of Edinburgh) gave an overview of the work going on in Edinburgh on both sides of the playing field. In particular he discussed the fascinating cancer-specific aspects of drug discovery and the use of complex tissue models and patient-derived cell based assays.

Similar angles were central in an exciting description of the system medicine vision and set-up of the Institute for Molecular Medicine in Finland (FIMM). Professor Olli Kallioniemi (Director, FIMM) focused on individualised therapy for acute myeloid leukemia to present the impressive set-up and challenging goals of the work carried out at the Institute. Cells from patients at diagnosis, remission and relapse are derived and compared. The sensitivity to a panel of drugs is collated to genomic profiling and to the clinical response. This approach can feed back information regarding the appropriateness of a treatment for patients carrying specific biomarkers. Also, emerging populations of cells that truly need to be targeted can be studied comparing relapse cases. These new tools are becoming available to tackle the overwhelming heterogeneity of the disease and may hopefully be applied also to other cancer types in the future.


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