A Wind of Change Blowing Through ISSCR

  • 11 August, 2020
Christine Mummery

It is hard to believe that only six weeks ago, we were concluding the first ISSCR virtual annual meeting, reflecting on its success and the positive response we saw from our international community. We learned tremendously throughout this journey and are using all of this experience to create an exciting path forward for the coming year.

While we continue to live with the realities of a global pandemic, which continue to necessitate changes in the way we live and work, the mission of the ISSCR has remained focused on promoting excellence in stem cell science and applications to human health and bringing value to our members across the world. Creating new ways to connect our global community around science is paramount. We need science to drive decision-making now perhaps more than ever, and the research in which all of you are instrumental is vital to helping ensure scientific knowledge derived through robust and rigorous peer-reviewed study is the foundation guiding important global public health decisions.

One way the society continues to cultivate community is through weekly collaborative meetings around COVID-19. Now approaching their 14th meeting, these virtual presentations and the discussions that follow help scientists in our global membership connect, sharing ideas, resources and new approaches using human stem cell models in this emerging field. An opportunity only for ISSCR members, meetings are well attended as our field contributes to understanding how the virus affects human cells and how we might inhibit the damage it causes.

This model for providing scientific content and collaborative meetings virtually is one the society is planning to expand on as our ability to travel and gather in groups remains limited. ISSCR 2020 Virtual and the COVID-19 Networking Meetings demonstrate that we can successfully connect digitally and help the community communicate and share data and discoveries that are meaningful to fighting disease.

We have witnessed another “wind of change” in the actual research presented this year at ISSCR 2020 Virtual: we now are seeing the questions beginning to change. Instead of asking “what are stem cells?” and “where do they come from?” we are now beginning to ask more and more “what can we do with stem cells?” These questions extend not only to transplantation for stem cell therapies, which has always been the ambition, but in drug discovery and safety. Think of gene therapy for strictly human conditions – can our models predict which gene therapies might work best and be safest in patients? Can we combine cell and gene therapy? Or, when we think of drug side effects missed in conventional animal studies – can we build human models that are better and cheaper than animals? As we think of understanding how the human microbiome affects our immune system, we can explore which unique resources are there to figure this out. What are the missing parts of our stem cell models to take this forward? Stem cells can provide many platforms to address these questions quickly and responsibly and it is energizing as we see our field coming of age.

In addition to creating new ways to connect our community around emerging scientific content digitally, we will continue the momentum from the Women in Science program at the annual meeting. A concerning statistic that we are seeing during this pandemic is a dramatic drop in the number of manuscripts with female senior authors. What is happening here? Has home schooling fallen on women such that there is no time to finish papers? Have their contracts been terminated? Has their confidence dropped? We know that when papers are not published, the basis of grant applications quickly plummets. At the ISSCR, we are putting this high on the ISSCR board agenda and will provide as much encouragement as we can to stop the trend. Our society journal, Stem Cell Reports, also will be doing its best to encourage submissions from female-led groups. We also are conducting a follow-up survey to help us continue to provide resources to address the gender imbalance in science, work collectively toward solutions to address it, and refine our program at our annual meeting next year in Hamburg, Germany.

As a society we also know we need to do more to connect with and address the needs of underrepresented minorities in science. Unconscious bias as we have seen from the “Black Lives Matter” movement is not only affecting women, but also people of color. We take care to have international representation in our speaker line-up and in our committees, but we realize we could and should be more active in increasing visibility of minority groups in our society and it is certainly on our agenda to give it all the attention it deserves. Actions count more than words, and we hope to share plans for how we will ensure continuous, long term progress in this important area.

We do not know what the future will hold, but we do know stem cell technology can help biomedical science bring new therapies and cures to patients in myriad ways. We saw it during the annual meeting with continuing advances in stem cell therapy and in the discovery of new treatments based on better understanding of disease mechanisms through new stem cell models. We see it in exciting science shared during the COVID-19 meetings each week. Our society’s meetings and symposia will reflect this and showcase exciting new translational and basic science content. The ISSCR is evolving to address the needs of our members and our field as it matures and while we continue to face some uncertainty we are enthusiastic and optimistic about the new opportunities that lie ahead.