Creating Opportunities to Advance Stem Cell Science: 2019-2020 Year in Review

  • 9 June, 2020
deepak square

While COVID-19 is the story of 2020, the story of our society over the past year has been about staying mission-focused, connecting the community, pushing science and translation forward, and responding to the needs of a diverse membership amidst the current challenge. Together, we have shown international leadership in scientific communications and programming, advocacy, and public education. Most importantly, the stem cell field continues to advance rapidly in both mechanistic understanding of disease and the translation of discovery into new therapies for so many devastating yet unsolved human diseases. Basic science discoveries in this area have matured to gain significant commercial investment in the last year for diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart failure, muscular dystrophies, and cancer, to name a few. Rigorous clinical and pre-clinical trials are advancing based on transplanting stem cells, reprogramming resident cells, discovering new drugs using stem cells, and delivering missing genes or gene editing machinery through novel gene therapy vectors. The important inflection point our field is experiencing makes me more hopeful than ever that stem cell biology and regenerative medicine will lead, in the not so distant future, to a world where we no longer have to accept the suffering of millions but instead can offer real cures.

Leading Development of International Guidelines for Stem Cell Research
As the science and clinical efforts progress, it is critical that we move with urgency but also great care and rigor, with careful consideration of ethics and the safety of the patients we serve. Since the release of the 2016 ISSCR “Guidelines for Stem Cell Research and Clinical Translation” the field has advanced rapidly. Accordingly, an ISSCR task force led by Robin Lovell-Badge, Francis Crick Institute, UK, is updating the ISSCR’s guidelines to address important scientific, ethical, and regulatory issues, including embryo models, organoids, chimeras, genome editing, and the regulation and economics of cell therapies. Revised guidelines will be available in early 2021, once again setting an international standard for excellence in stem cell research and clinical translation.

Complementing this initiative, the ISSCR and the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health held a two-day workshop in Guangzhou, China in December 2019. The workshop focused on the regulation and application of gene-editing technology and the oversight of experimental treatments including patient protection and the governance of clinical trials. The meeting fostered an international dialogue and exchange of information and ideas that will continue.

Communicating Impactful Stem Cell Research
Stem Cell Reports, the ISSCR’s open-access, online journal, has continued to publish impactful stem cell research, while serving the stem cell community. In the last 12 months, the journal has published primary research articles, reviews, and perspectives across a breadth of stem cell science—from fundamental research to translational discoveries happening in laboratories across the world.

We will soon be launching a Special Issue on Nuclear Architecture, a collection of original reviews and primary research on the regulation and impact of chromatin structure in stem cells. The journal also has expanded its efforts to identify and highlight important ethical, political, or scientific issues within the stem cell or broader scientific community through Commentaries and Forum articles in our Society Pages. As always, we will be publishing our “Best of” issue in June so be sure to check on the Stem Cell Reports website to see some of the editor’s favorite articles from the past 12 months.

Stem Cell Reports is important to the Society and its education and outreach efforts with a percentage of the author publication charges supporting various initiatives including international public policy initiatives, educational efforts, career development programs, and public outreach. These important activities on behalf of members and the stem cell community could not take place without this vital support.

Sharing Excellence in Scientific Programs
Shaping the 2020 ISSCR annual meeting into a virtual experience required a monumental effort from our speakers and staff and represented a leap of faith from our sponsors, exhibitors, and attendees to support this new model. The 2020 program will be robust and engaging, though the delivery will be quite different from our successful ISSCR 2019 gathering in Los Angeles, California, USA. The 2019 annual meeting drew nearly 4,000 attendees, 207 plenary and concurrent talks, and 1,400 poster presentations that covered the breadth of stem cell science and it applications.

We were pleased to translate nearly all of the programming into a virtual format for 2020, while keeping the registration fees extremely low for the community. Throughout seven plenary sessions, we are highlighting the increasing ability to perform mechanistic science and therapeutic discovery using technologies including human organoids, single cell studies, and advanced computational approaches leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence. We have continued to emphasize the valuable opportunities associated with the annual meeting available to young scientists that include being chosen as an abstract-selected speaker for a plenary or a concurrent session. The society also has designed sessions specifically for trainees, early-career scientists, and women in science that allow them to explore myriad career opportunities, enhance their professional development, and that facilitate networking with senior researchers. Supporting the next generation of stem cell scientists through meaningful education and leadership opportunities remains a vital component of the society’s mission.

This year, we have incorporated parallel, theme-based tracks, which include Cellular Identity, Clinical Applications, Tissue Stem Cells and Regeneration, and Modeling Development and Disease. The Business of Discovery workshop is a new program this year and driven by the needs of our members to better understand how to take ideas from the bench to the market. Additionally, our “virtual” poster hall will allow attendees to view posters, listen to brief audio highlights, and communicate directly with the presenter through a dedicated chat.

The creation of focused themes and the growing emphasis on education on the commercialization of stem cell-based therapies emerged from approaches developed by the Task Force on Future Annual Meetings Strategy. Led by incoming ISSCR President Christine Mummery, Leiden University Medical Center, the Netherlands, and Lucy O’Brien, Stanford University, USA, the group met in 2019 to evaluate how to continue to adapt our meeting as the field and the needs of the stem cell community evolve. Further, consistent with the society’s investment in recognizing excellence in stem cell science, the board of directors established two new awards that will be given for the first time during this year’s meeting. The ISSCR Momentum Award is given to an investigator whose innovative research has established a major area of stem cell-related research, while the ISSCR Achievement Award recognizes the transformative body of work that has had a major impact on the field of stem cell research or regenerative medicine.

Developing intimate meetings that bring together the world's leading experts in a specific area of stem cell science remains a key mission of the ISSCR. In September 2019, the ISSCR hosted “Stem Cell Research: Present and Future” in Seoul, Korea in connection with the Korean Society of Stem Cell Research meeting. In November, “From Stem Cell Biology to New Therapies,” featured leaders in translational research from academia and industry in Toronto, Canada with co-sponsor BlueRock.  We will continue to consider how we will move forward with these International Symposia with programs planned in China, France, Japan, and USA over the next 16 months. Given our experience going virtual with the annual meeting, we are exploring the potential to continue regional meetings in a more virtual fashion if needed.

Advocating for Science-based Policies
The ISSCR has strengthened its focus on international public policy including advocating to improve the regulation of unproven and unapproved stem cell-based interventions. Google’s new global policy to ban advertising for speculative medical products, including unproven stem cell treatments, represents a significant advocacy achievement this year. The policy sends a strong message to rogue clinics, improves the public discourse regarding stem cell research, and aligns with ISSCR’s ongoing efforts to inform the public about the state of stem cell research. This year, the ISSCR joined an international effort to develop recommendations for the World Health Organization to strengthen the regulation and enforcement of unproven stem cell treatments. The society also urged regulatory authorities in the UK and Brazil to increase enforcement for the marketing of unproven stem cell-based products and strengthen the regulation of stem cell-based products respectively.

The ISSCR published an Informed Consent Standard for Stem Cell Based Interventions to establish a professional standard for the information that needs to be provided to adequately inform patients about the risks and benefits of stem cell-based treatments. This resource builds on A Closer Look at Stem Cells, which is the society’s public education website for stem cell research. Finally, the society released a public warning about clinics offering stem cell “treatments” for COVID-19 to clarify that there currently are no approved stem cell-based therapies for COVID-19.

I joined other scientists and experts in Washington D.C. for the ISSCR’s first Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill. The ISSCR met with policymakers to voice concerns regarding the new restrictions on research using fetal tissue, the proliferation of clinics selling unproven stem cell “treatments,” and to support biomedical research funding. The importance of fetal tissue research, in particular, remained front and center during these meetings and throughout the year as the society led a coalition of 100 scientific organizations to urge the U.S. Administration to lift restrictions on fetal tissue research.  The current policy has stymied the important and irreplaceable use of fetal tissue for understanding human development in a way that can be leveraged for human disease, as well as research using mice with humanized immune systems, particularly for COVID-19 studies.

In connection with Capitol Hill Day activities, the ISSCR held its first liaison meeting with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) to discuss the use and regulation of stem cell-based products. The society anticipates meeting with the FDA annually and has plans to host similar meetings internationally when safe travel resumes.

Creating a More Informed Public
In 2019, ISSCR launched an Education Committee that is assembling a syllabus and learning guide to teach undergraduate students, early graduate students, and medical students the core concepts of stem cell biology. This blueprint for an introductory course will explore how stem cells are being translated for clinical application and the corresponding ethical questions and is expected by the end of this year.

A Closer Look at Stem Cells, the society’s public facing website, is designed to introduce the public to stem cell biology and provides patients with the resources they need to understand cell therapies and potential treatments. In 2019, unique visitors to the site grew 67 percent to nearly 500,000. The society has expanded the resources on this website by translating some of the disease fact sheets prepared by the Clinical Translation Committee and adding a new resource for parents-to-be about cord blood banking and donation.

Responding to Global Member Needs
Lastly, this year the society quickly responded to the needs of our members amid the COVID-19 crisis. What started as a dedicated resource page on the ISSCR website that collected global information and resources about COVID-19 and encouraged others to connect and share, evolved into a survey of the international stem cell field. The results of the survey provided valuable insights around how scientists were coping and working during the crisis. The discovery that many laboratories had begun working on COVID-19 led the ISSCR to establish an ongoing series of networking meetings to connect members across the world and to launch a Slack channel to help facilitate collaboration. I am proud of how so many stem cell biologists are leveraging their knowledge and expertise to help in the fight against this global pandemic, and the ISSCR is helping them to network in ways leading to valuable collaborations.

The past 12 months serving as your President have been rewarding and challenging, but with every crisis comes new opportunity. It has been a year full of exciting achievements in stem cell research and new firsts for the society as we adapt to ensure that connections and communication continues in our field despite the new “normal.” I am confident our brightest days are ahead and together we will achieve our goal of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine alleviating human suffering. Thank you for your support of the ISSCR and the furtherance of the society’s mission.