"Stem cell crazy"
For three days, from 9 to 11 October, more than 300 scientists from over 20 countries met at the Haus der Wirtschaft in Stuttgart to discuss the current state of research, the latest product developments and therapies for clinical application in regenerative medicine and stem cell research. For the third time, BioStar 2008, a Congress on Regenerative Biology and Medicine – on this occasion in cooperation with the 3rd Annual Congress of the German Society for Stem Cell Research – offered its international audience a unique platform for exchanging information on an interdisciplinary basis.
An interdisciplinary approach is essential not only for biotechnology and regenerative medicine but also for stem cell research. Thus, one of the chief aims of this congress was to bring together consultants, entrepreneurs and scientists specialising in different fields in order to promote “cross-talk” and cooperation. This unique concept made the event very popular. All presentations on the subject areas “Regenerative Biology”, “Regenerative Therapies”, “Interfaces”, “Medical Biotechnology”, “Stem Cell Niches” and “Reprogramming and Differentiation” were held before packed audiences.
Progress in research will change the face of clinical medicine
In his opening speech, Professor Stephen Minger, Director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory at the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases (CARD) at King’s College in London, succinctly summed up the enormous interest of the scientific community and the public in stem cell research by saying, “The world has gone stem cell crazy”.
Stem cells are no longer only obtained from embryonic or foetal tissue. It is also common practice today to isolate somatic stem cells from adult organisms. Last year, scientists succeeded for the first time in converting somatic cells from adult human beings into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). As each type of stem cell has both specific advantages and disadvantages for scientists, a great deal of research is still required in this area. During his presentation, Professor Minger underlined the importance of successful cooperation between the scientific and political communities. In Great Britain, the “Gene Therapy Advisory Committee” (GTAC) is responsible for evaluating the ethical aspects of clinical studies involving gene or stem cell therapies. In addition, the “Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority” monitors any research carried out in the field of reproductive medicine, particularly work on human embryos. Prof. Minger and his colleagues received one of the first licences for the production of human embryonic stem cells (hES cells). Since 2002, they have developed several hES cell lines that are available to researchers across the globe through the UK Stem Cell Bank. A few months ago, scientists were also given the go-ahead to generate interspecific embryos and to plant somatic cell nuclei in bovine oocytes to compensate for the ongoing lack of oocytes (female germ cells).
Prof. Minger is confident that the progress made in medical research will fundamentally change the face of clinical medicine. For example, it will be possible to repair heart tissue damaged during a heart attack or replace lost neuronal cells in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. There is also hope for diabetics and patients suffering from MS, as researchers are working intensively on the replacement of cells that produce insulin and myelinize. However, there is still a long way to go until the latest research results can actually be used in medical applications.
Better prospects for nerve regeneration after spinal injuries
Sound knowledge of biological mechanisms, particularly research into molecular and cellular differences between physiological and pathological conditions and the similarities between embryogenesis and regeneration in the adult organism, is essential for all these research projects. It was these aspects that were picked out as the central topic for the “Regenerative Biology” session using examples of different organs.
Professor Hans Werner Müller and his colleagues at the Laboratory for Molecular Neurobiology at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, for example, are looking into why spontaneous axon regeneration works in the peripheral nervous system, while injuries to the spinal cord usually cause irreversible paralysis. Scarring of the nerve tissue has been identified as a barrier to regeneration. It appears that, in addition to necessary scar formation, inhibitory molecules also form in the tissue’s collagen structures, thus preventing the growth of new axons. In animal models, the researchers have already succeeded in using local pharmacological treatment and applying specific antibodies to modify scarring so that damaged axons can grow again, thus preventing paralysis.
Dr. Malte Tiburcy from the Institute of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology at the Hamburg-Eppendorf University Medical Centre presented a technology that gives hope that it will soon be possible to create artificial heart tissue. The “engineered heart tissue” should “look and act as if it were made by nature itself” and help “repair” hearts damaged by heart attacks. However, there are still several obstacles to overcome before this technology can be tested in clinical studies, as the optimum source for cardiogenic stem cells has not yet been identified. Dr. David Tosh from the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Bath (UK) presented a transdifferentiation process that can be used to help convert pancreatic cells into liver cells, which could eliminate the need for liver transplants at some point in the future.
Stem cells facilitate healing without scarring after burn injuries
In the “Regenerative Therapies” subject area, too, the focus was on understanding molecular mechanisms that could have a significant impact on differentiation in relation to stem cells in particular. For example, Dr. Andreas E. May from the Tübingen Medical Clinic and Outpatient Department demonstrated that the effect of thrombocytes on stem cells and precursor cells should not be underestimated. Platelets direct circulating precursor cells towards injured vessels and have an impact on their biological activity and growth. At the same time, they are also involved in processes that lead to inflammation in the vessel walls and arteriosclerosis. Their interaction with other cell types has both the potential to support processes of healing and regeneration and to trigger illnesses. Knowledge of signal transduction pathways means that thrombocytes can already be used to restore connective tissue and bone.
Dr. Christian Ottomann from the Berlin Trauma Centre uses regenerative stem cell therapies to treat serious burns. In the area of the face and neck, where serious burns lead to particularly painful scar formation, a procedure developed in Australia is applied, in which skin stem cells from an area of healthy skin the size of a stamp are isolated and applied as a spray onto the burnt areas. The stem cells populate the burnt skin and facilitate quick healing without scar formation.
Regenerative therapies can also be used to help patients suffering from aseptic bone necrosis, which results from the temporary or permanent loss of the blood supply to the bones. In his presentation, Dr. Ulrich Nöth from the University of Würzburg Orthopedic Center for Musculoskeletal Research explained how a stem cell therapy can prevent the progression of necrosis of the femoral head. During a study, all patients who received transplants containing their bodies’ own stem cells, bone replacement material and osteogenic and angiogenic growth factors did not require an artificial hip joint.
Bypass operations without the risk of thrombosis
Transplants usually involve stem cells or precursor cells and supporting structures. Several presentations in the “Interfaces” session focused on the search for the ideal properties of supporting structures for different types of tissue. Taking the example of artificial heart muscle tissue, Professor Buddy D. Ratner, Director of University of Washington Engineered Biomaterials, unveiled results compiled as part of a biotechnology research partnership between several teams of scientists. Dr. Manrico Paulitschke from Vasotissue Technologies GmbH in Berlin showcased an innovative endothelialised vessel prosthesis, which can be used in bypass operations to replace a patient’s own vessels without the risk of thrombosis.
Advances in the area of regenerative biology and medicine are ensuring continuous growth in the demand for high-quality, non-invasive imaging processes in order to map 3D biological and artificial structures both in vitro and in vivo. Professor Harry van Lenthe, who heads the Department of Biomechanics and Engineering Design at the University of Leuven (Belgium), presented a completely new process in the “Medical Biotechnology” session. His department uses micro computer tomography to generate detailed data for 3D quantification of supporting structures. Images and models extend right down to the cellular level, allowing for further improvement and optimisation of the structure design.
In the closing session “Reprogramming and Differentiation”, Professor Ulrich Martin from the Leibniz Institute for Biotechnology and Artificial Organs in Hanover presented iPS cells that are obtained from the somatic cells of adult organisms. Although his team is still far from being able to explain all the processes, they have succeeded in generating iPS cell lines that are just as efficient as embryonic stem cells. He showed that iPS cells differentiated into heart muscle cells develop the spontaneous ability to contract synchronously. A great deal of research is still also required in this area in order to improve the efficiency of the reprogramming, accelerate the process and rule out the risk of tumour formation.
Inspiring meeting of young researchers with experienced colleagues
Although not always in the public eye, the field of regenerative biology and stem cell research is currently developing in leaps and bounds. The fact that experts agree that interdisciplinary cooperation must be improved further in the interest of both scientists and patients goes to show that the organisers – the Society for the Promotion of Biotechnology Stuttgart/Tübingen/Neckar-Alb e.V., the German Society for Stem Cell Research (GSZ), BioRegio STERN Management GmbH, the Centre for Regenerative Biology and Regenerative Medicine (ZRM) at the University of Tübingen and BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH – are on the right track in encouraging the formation of networks between basic researchers, consultants and business companies. “We made a conscious decision to veer away from the traditional conference structure, because we believe that events involving experts from just one single field – who exchange information on a regular basis anyway – are no longer viable in this day and age,” explained Dr. Klaus Eichenberg, Managing Director of BioRegio STERN Management GmbH. The next logical step was, therefore, to invite the upcoming generation of young researchers to the event alongside established experts – in line with the ethos of the Chairman of the German Society for Stem Cell Research Professor Jürgen Hescheler. He fears that the area of stem cell research could soon suffer from a shortage of qualified experts: “The GSZ congress and BioStar have focused specifically on encouraging young scientists at the start of their career.” Everyone involved found the idea of bringing together young researchers and students with experienced colleagues inspiring. “The success of the third BioStar Congress proves that the format of this congress for regenerative sciences is becoming firmly established, thus laying the foundation for a long tradition,” said a delighted Professor Claus D. Claussen, Director of the Society for the Promotion of Biotechnology Stuttgart/Tübingen/Neckar-Alb e.V., as the main organiser of BioStar 2008.