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Hosting the brightest young stem cell biologists in the Hawk’s Nest: the 6th Young Investigator Stem Cell Award symposia, Serbia 2011

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The annual YIA symposium is dedicated to fostering and supporting the best and the brightest generation of stem cell scientists through an open competition of all young authors who have published their finding in the field through the Stem Cells journal. More than that, the symposium intends to showcase some of the most relevant and recent developments in the field from investigators across the word. And indeed it excelled in both fronts!  The Editor of Stem Cells Prof. Miodrag Stojkovic of Kragujevac University (Serbia) took the audience on a trip “through stem cells and beyond” highlighting the key clinical and scientific developments in the stem cell field. The latest developments in induction of pluripotency in germline and somatic cells were summarised by Prof. Hans Scholer of Max Planck Institute (Munster, Germany) who questioned “how Oct4”  can be the irreplaceable factor in induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) and germ cell mediated reprogramming? According to Prof. Scholer, Oct4 does not act alone:  The BAF chromatin remodelling complex containing Brg1, enhances the efficiency of transcription factor mediated reprogramming by regulating Oct4 expression and establishing chromatin accessibility to Oct4 and its reprogramming partners. Once pluripotency is established, there is a finite risk that genetic and epigenetic alterations may accumulate quickly due to extended culturing of pluripotent stem cells. Dr. Ales Hampl from Masaryk University (Brno, Czech Republic) told the audience that human embryonic stem cells (hESC) do accumulate supernumerary centrosomes which disappear upon prolonged propagation in culture. It is possible that accumulation of genetic changes in hESC is possible through an incomplete activation of G1 to S checkpoint pathway. While the “quick” – CDC25A driven activation of G1/S checkpoint is operative, Dr. Hampl suggested that the “slower but more robust p21 driven” activation of this checkpoint is subdued due to repression of p21 by miRNA 302 in hESC.  Continuing with pluripotent stem cell differentiation, Prof. Majlinda Lako of Newcastle University (UK) and Dr. Slaven Erceg (CABIMER, Seville, Spain) highlighted the recent developments made by their research groups in directing differentiation of hESC to functional haematopoietic, oligodendrocytes and motor neuron progenitors and their further engraftment into animal models of disease. Despite incremental efforts, Prof. Lako highlighted that hESC derived haematopoietic cells do share an embryonic/fetal gene expression programme resulting in low engraftment efficiencies.  This seemingly perfect mimicry of embryonic development can however be harnessed for understanding the onset of congenital diseases which would have not been possible till the advent of hESC and human iPSC.

The afternoon session of the symposium focused on adult stem cells and was started by Prof. Miodrag Colic of Military Academy (Belgrade, Serbia) who revealed that dental pulp mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in addition to showing the typical MSC characteristics produce higher amounts of TGFβ and posses higher immunomodulatory activities. Given that dental pulp MSCs are easily accessible, their tolerogeneic function makes them a viable resource for biomedical applications.  This was followed by another exciting talk by Dr. Veljko Nikolic of Kragujevac University (Serbia) on the immunomodulatory potential of a subset of human umbilical cord blood cells and their potential application in rescuing behavioural deficits in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The potential of stem cells in regenerative medicine cannot however be realised till appropriate expansion methods are worked out under in vitro conditions. Dr. Zoran Ivanovic from Establissement Francais du Sang Aquitaine-Limousin (Bordeaux, France) revealed to the audience that “anaerobic” low energy proliferation is key to the self-renewal of stem cells. On this basis, his laboratory has developed ex vivo conditions for expansion of stem cells from umbilical cord blood in media supplemented with powerful antioxidants with the aim of mimicking the low O2 environment of haematopoiesis.  While most of the speakers focused on one stem cell type, Prof. Wolfgang Franz of Ludwig Maximilian’s University (Munich, Germany) explored the potential of bone marrow derived stem cells, embryonic and cardiovascular stem cells for regeneration of ischemic heart and emphasised that transplanted stem cells are more likely to act “regenerator cells” activating via paracrine effect proliferation of resident stem cells, thereby supporting the myocardial healing mechanisms after injury.

Last but not the least, the final talk of the symposium was presented by the YIA 2011 award winner Dr. Ewa Meyer-Blazejewska from University of Erlangen-Nurnberg (Germany) who explored the therapeutic potential of hair follicle bulge derived stem cells to regenerate the cornea. Corneal regeneration is supported by limbal stem cells which are widely used for treatment of unilateral limbal stem cell deficiencies. However bilateral damage of limbal stem cells requires identification of new autologous sources of stem cells. The study performed by YIA award winner albeit carried out in murine animal models paves the way for transplantation of this work in man.

As the scientific discussions heated up, we were all driven to a traditional Serbian countryside restaurant where all the stem cell scientists had a chance to try “the best stem cell serbian kitchen”. The symposium closed officially under the sounds of folk music and open burning fires, but we do hope that this was the beginning of new collaborations and exciting publications to appear in Stem Cells and to be celebrated in next year’s YIA.

Dr. Miodrag Stoijkovic and Young Investigator Award winner Dr. Ewa Anna Meyer-Blazejewska