stem cells in their environment

Montagna Symposium on the Biology of Skin 2015

03 December 2015
By Ryan Driskell

The Montagna Symposium was established in 1950 as a forum for dermatologists to discover basic information about how skin worked.  For those of us born holding iPads, it is hard to imagine the difficulties of not being able to 'google' basic information, such as the anatomical characteristics of glands in the ear. I guess during that time it was important to keep in contact with a human version of Wikipedia; one such person was a comparative cutaneous biologist named Bill Montagna, who is honoured by naming the meeting after him.

In the 1940s it was difficult for scientists to have access to a forum to specifically discuss skin, as can be seen by observations from Walter Lobitz M.D., made about the field of dermatology.  He noted that the leather industry knew more about the dermis; the wool industry knew more about hair and sebaceous glands; and the cosmetic industry knew more about fingernails, keratin, oil, and sweating than the field of dermatology knew about skin - you can read more about it here. Hence the need to start a scientific meeting based around skin.  Of course the field of dermatology has advanced considerably since then but the Montagna Symposium has endured, now for 75 years, and continues to provide a forum for cutaneous scientists and dermatologists to discuss all things related to skin.

Sometimes I feel that scientific meetings are scientists' 'other holidays'.  This is because we are away from the lab but we don't have to feel guilty about being away from something we are passionate about (I'm sure our loved ones have something to say concerning this). In this light, we were lucky to attend the Montagna meeting that was held at Salishan Spa and Golf Resort, Oregon, where we were also able to enjoy a round of golf!

Photo courtesy of George Cotsarelis

I can say that, after attending my first Montagna Symposium in 2001, I was hooked on skin biology and it was one of the factors that eventually influenced me to do a postdoc in Professor Fiona Watt's laboratory in Cambridge.  This year's Montagna symposium (2015) was equally addictive in sustaining my interest in studying skin.  The focus of the 2015 meeting was on "Harnessing Stem Cells to Reveal Novel Skin Biology and Disease Treatment” and was chaired by Dr Xiao-Jing Wang and Dr Valerie Horsley, whom I must thank for inviting me to participate in the meeting.  The meeting started out with a keynote presentation on Thursday evening with Piwi-interacting RNA (piRNA) and their role in the genome, by Professor Haifan Lin at Yale. piRNAs are a fascinating group of large non-coding RNAs that interact with piwi proteins to regulate epigenetic effects of gene regulation.

It was particularly interesting to learn from Professor Lin, how piRNAs regulate stem cell division. Friday's talks focused initially on understanding stem cell regulation in the skin.  A talk from Dr Tudorita Tumbar on "Defining the cellular lineage hierarchy in adult skin epidermis" on her important efforts to study how epidermal stem cells contribute to skin homeostasis and wound repair piqued my interests. The Tumbar lab utilised novel transgenic technologies that allowed her to elucidate different stem cell populations in the skin. Could there possibly be more stem cells in the skin?  Dr Kif Liakath-Ali also presented interesting work on how defects in epidermal homeostasis in a ceramidase mutant influence systemic energy homeostasis.

Dr Michael Rendl's presentation, "Molecular signatures of stem cell precursors and their niche from developing hair follicles" reinforced the fact that 'big data' generated from the DP can be openly shared by presenting his most recent work from his lab and also a website called ''.  This website will allow any researcher to query a gene to determine the expression in different cell types at E14.5 during development.  There are plans to expand the website and I have found that it is extremely useful.  There were also efforts to generate functional skin in culture, which would include hair follicles and sweat glands for therapeutic and research purposes. Proffesor Angela Christiano and Professor Tony Oro presented this type of work, which I think represents the ultimate vision many of us have in skin biology.

I am sorry not to write more about my experiences and the many other excellent talks and posters but time and space are limited in a blog. However, the full programme can be found here.

Photo courtesy of the Montagna Symposium on Facebook

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