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StemCellTalks 2018 at McMaster University Brings Discussions of Making Sci-Fi Medicine a Modern Reality

Damian Tran

Damian Tran | Thursday, March 29, 2018

StemCellTalks coordinator, Damian Tran, recounts the inspiring moments of the symposium, which aimed to engage senior high school students with introductory stem cell biology.

I had the distinct pleasure of partnering with Let’s Talk Science to host the 6th annual StemCellTalks Hamilton symposium at McMaster University, which occured on March 23rd, 2018. Together, the SCC-RI and Let’s Talk Science, made this chapter of the Canada-wide symposium series a major success!

StemCellTalks is held in 8 cities across the nation, all with the end goal of inspiring the future generation of young scientists at the senior high school level. It addresses the demand for more stem cell researchers, specialists, and clinicians in the public health care sector, which is modernizing to include within its arsenal, a small but growing range of stem-cell-based therapies. Thus far, it has given over five thousand Canadian high school students the opportunity to delve into concepts of introductory stem cell biology, and challenge their minds to think above and beyond.

This year, StemCellTalks Hamilton hosted over one hundred students at the grade 11 and 12 levels from 5 high schools in Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area. Seats at the symposium were highly coveted due to our exciting theme this year: toward curing the incurable: stem cell gene therapies and the medicine of the future.

The students were given exciting opportunities to hear about ground-breaking science from our panel of talented, highly influential researchers from the Hamilton and Toronto areas. Our very own Dr. Kristin Hope, opened with a fantastic prelude about stem cell biology, incorporating incredible examples of stem cell regeneration capacities in nature and the clinic. Dr. Ronan Foley, a hematologist at Juravinski Hospital, director of the Clinical Stem Cell Laboratory, and associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster University, gave an inspirational speech about the work his team conducted as part of the first ever successful gene therapy trial for Fabry disease worldwide. Last, but certainly not least, Dr. Jim Hu, senior scientist at the Translational Medicine Program at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, gave a fascinating talk about the use of viruses to, one day, deliver gene therapies to the lungs of patients affected by cystic fibrosis.

Understandably, these stem cell concepts were difficult to grasp for our student attendees and yet, in the face of this challenge, they were attentive, focused, and highly inquisitive, asking many questions of our volunteers and speakers who helped fill gaps in their knowledge and bridge the distance between scientist and student. Our volunteers from the SCC-RI, the McMaster Stem Cell Club, and Let’s Talk Science slowed down the pace with engaging discussions about stem cell biology and case studies regarding the controversies in medical ethics of the coming gene therapy renaissance. As a fun experience to end off the day of learning, we provided an exciting hands-on activity called Giant Gene Editing, which took DNA editing to the macroscale! Students worked with cut-out pieces of a simplified CRISPR-Cas9 knock-in system to make gene insertions for fake patients, and to learn about the possible results!

The 6th StemCellTalks Hamilton symposium concluded with prize giveaways presented by the McMaster Stem Cell Club, to hard-working attendees who submitted responses to the Differentiate stem cell case competition. We received, wholeheartedly, positive, enthusiastic reviews about StemCellTalks from our newly-inspired, attending students and educators, many of whom have expressed interest in participating in this highly educational, inspirational event again in 2019.

Coordinating the StemCellTalks 2018 symposium at McMaster has been an exciting and educational experience for me. I found myself learning much about the ground-breaking work being done by Canadian researchers, and interacting with many inquisitive volunteers and attendees who all left the event that day with the same inspiration of science fiction soon becoming an everyday reality.

I would like to extend a warm thank you to our sponsors: the Stem Cell Network, the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, all of which donated generously to make this wonderful symposium possible.