Volunteers at StemCellTalks Toronto, 2013. Photo courtesy of Mario Moscovici and Let’s Talk Science.
Volunteers at StemCellTalks Toronto, 2013. Photo courtesy of Mario Moscovici and Let’s Talk Science.

Stem Cell Research was under the Microscope on March 8, 2013 at the Fourth Annaul StemCellTalks. StemCellTalks is a science outreach initiative developed by Paul Cassar, Angela McDonald, and David Grant, in partnership with Let’s Talk Science and the Stem Cell Network. The mission of StemCellTalks is to introduce high school students to basic stem cell biology, and to promote the discussion of the ethics of stem cell research and conducting clinical trials and therapies. Each symposium features formal presentations by Stem Cell Network faculty, as well as a series of faculty-led debates regarding various approaches for stem cell research and translation to the clinic. These sessions are followed by Let’s Talk Science volunteer-led breakout sessions, in which students discuss what they have learned, and vote on debate winners. StemCellTalk symposia occur every spring in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Hamilton. Past years’ themes have included cardiac and spinal stem cells.

This year’s theme was hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), and the Toronto symposium was co-organized by IBBME graduate students Nika Shakiba and David Lee. Our own graduate students Patrycja Thompson, Mayra Cruz-Tleugabulova and Catherine Schrankel participated as roundtable leaders. Over 120 high-school students from across the GTA converged at the MaRS Auditorium to attend the interactive event. Students were organized into tables of six as various researchers from Toronto took to the stage.

After a brief introduction to stem cell biology by bioengineer Dr. Penny Gilbert, stem cell researchers Dr. Peter Zandstra and Dr. Peter Tonge debated between the uses (or potential use) of multipotent HSCs or induced pluripotent cells (iPS) for the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Post-debate, students discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each cell type, and were asked to vote on which cell type they would want to study for transplant therapies. Perhaps in part to Dr.Tonge’s dashing Irish accent, but more so due to his portrayal of the exciting clinical potential of iPS cell studies, students overwhelmingly chose iPS cells to research as future scientists.

The second debate of the morning was hosted by Drs. Armand Keating and Ronan Foley. Students were introduced to bone marrow and umbilical cord blood transplants, and were given a case study of an ALL patient who had both a matched sibling and that sibling’s banked cord-blood available for transplant. Which source of HSCs would be best in this scenario? On one hand, cord blood grafts are overall more tolerable for the host. However, there are only enough HSCs in one cord for a single transplant into a child or young adult. On the other hand, bone marrow transplants will graft faster and offer a lower relapse risk, but are prone to inducing graft-versus-host disease. Bone-marrow extraction would also involve significant pain and recovery for the matched sibling. Using the sibling’s bone marrow would also ensure that the cord blood remains available for both children up to young adulthood. Thus after heated discussion, students chose bone marrow transplant for the patient by a close margin.

The symposium switched gears to practical ethics in the afternoon session, piloted by an engaging presentation on cord blood banking by bioethicist Dr. Shane Green. Students were asked to question the marketing strategies of cord blood banks to expectant parents, and what role the government should play, if any, in funding and regulating public cord blood banks. Dr. Green’s talk was followed by a Q&A with a panel of representatives from public and private cord blood banks, the biotechnology sector, and clinician scientists.

Overall, students were highly engaged at the intersection of science, research, and ethics at this year’s StemCellTalks.  The future of stem cell research appears to be in safe hands as the next generation of future scientists, doctors, and politicians prepares to enter university. We hope a few of them will come knocking on our department’s door!

Next year’s StemCellTalks will focus on neural stem cells, and any interested graduate students or faculty are encouraged to contact the University of Toronto chapter of Let’s Talk Science (lts.grad@utoronto.ca).

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Catherine Schrankel

Former Co-Editor in Chief
Cat obtained her MSc in Biological Sciences from the George Washington University in Washington, DC. She is currently a PhD student of Immunology at the University of Toronto, and is interested in the development and evolution of immune systems (using the purple sea urchin as a model system). In her spare time, she loves to cook, run, and work on her burgeoning interests in scientific illustration and design.

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