Above: Grade 12 student Anthony Vecchiarelli attended the 2014 StemCellTalks Toronto symposium (photo courtesy of Nika Shakiba).
On March 7, 2014, over 100 of Toronto’s brightest high school students had the opportunity to take part in the fifth annual StemCellTalks Toronto symposium. The goal of the symposium was to provide an interactive and stimulating environment for students to explore the basics of stem cell biology, as well as the ethical issues surrounding stem cell therapies. This year’s focus was directed towards spinal cord injuries (SCI).
Joining us in this year’s symposium were some of the world’s finest leaders in the field of stem cell biology and bioengineering. Guest speakers included Dr. Allison Brown, Dr. Derek van der Kooy, and Ms. Barbara Turnbull, who each, in addition to the other excellent speakers, offered a new perspective and insight into the world of stem cell ethics, therapies, and most interestingly a look into the patients’ minds.
With SCI being the focus of this year’s symposium, one of the featured presentations looked to compare tissue engineering versus endogenous repair for treating SCI. Tissue engineering essentially involves using biomaterials to deliver differentiated stem cells to the injury site, then using growth factors to speed up the growth of these cells. Cells embedded in hydrogel are implanted into the body via a needle, which hopefully cure the injury. The other method presented was endogenous (meaning ‘from within’) repair, which aims to activate stem cells already within the spinal cord that are dormant or inactive, using drugs. Overall, endogenous repair offers the advantage of convenience and mass production, because of the simplicity of confining the treatment to a pill. However, it lacks consumer trust because it seems unlikely that a “magical pill” can solve such a serious injury. Tissue engineering, however, seems to be a more legitimate means of treatment, though it failed to show promise for use on a larger scale. In addition, it proved to be problematic for elderly patients who will likely be unable to undergo a surgery.
In my opinion, what made the entire experience not only exciting but also memorable was that the symposium was geared towards educating students in a fun and immersive environment that allowed for questions, discussion periods, knowledge sharing sessions, as well as table discussions, which gave me the chance to take a pause and talk to other students sitting at my table about the current topic at hand. Another great feature of the symposium was the involvement of breakout leaders, who are graduate students in the field of stem cells, who sat at each table and helped with understanding the material as well as adding in their own opinions and two cents about the topics at hand. This further enriched the experience by adding another dimension in which students were able to engage themselves in the learning and also benefit from career mentorship opportunities.
Furthermore, I would like to give a big thank you to all those involved in planning and carrying out this event because it opened up the minds of everyone in attendance, and shed light on several concepts and therapies that students in high school may not have been aware of yet.
At this point it is clear that stem cells will play a prominent role in the future of health care, the only question is, when?
StemCellTalks is an outreach initiative established to facilitate knowledge transfer between academia and high school students pertaining to the science and practical ethics of stem cells. For more information, visit stemcelltalks.ca.