Annual Siebel conference unites Berkeley, Stanford stem cell researchers

February 7, 2020

On February 6, over 50 researchers, donors, postdocs and graduate students from Stanford and UC Berkeley gathered at Stanford’s Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building to hear about the latest stem cell researcher at both institutions. The gathering was the annual conference of the Siebel Stem Cell Institute, a collaborative research venture that funds the research of Berkeley and Stanford stem cell scientists. The researchers hold an annual conference, which alternates between the two campuses. 

This year, 15 speakers related research in a broad variety of subjects, ranging from molecular techniques to develop gene therapies to growing human organs for transplantation in farm animals. A common theme that bound all these talks, said Siebel Institute Co-Director Irv Weissman, was a dedication to seeking clinical applications for stem cell science. “Years ago, researchers would have been content with finding the fundamental biological processes at work,” Weissman said. “What we see in all of these talks is a resolution to not only to discover these fundamental processes, but also to find applications that can help people who are suffering. 

Berkeley Professor David Schaffer, for instance, spoke of using directed evolution of viral vectors to create tools for clinical gene therapy, while Stanford Professor Ravi Majeti spoke about his research reprogramming cancer cells so that they become antigen-presenting cells that could be used to vaccinate people against cancer. Fyodor Urnov from Berkeley spoke about the challenges of scaling the molecular biology tool CRISPR so that it could be used to treat genetic diseases. Urnov emphasized that in the next ten years, we have zero chance of seeing approved genetic therapies for rare, point-mutation disorders coming from the pharmaceutical industry, and we need to have a different model of drug development supports researchers who develop first-in-human therapies in non-profit organizations like Universities. 

Stanford Professor Hiro Nakauchi talked about his research to address the vast shortage of organs available for transplantation by growing them in farm animals. He imagines accomplishing this by injecting human progenitor cells into special animal embryo cells that lack certain genes crucial for developing the target organ. If a pig is missing the genes required to develop a pancreas, for instance, the pig will develop a heart using human cells. 

Berkeley research Johannes Schoeneberg revealed exquisite video of human cancer cells looking for a place to metastasize, video that was made possible with a new technology called the laser light sheet microscope. Stanford’s Sidd Jaiswal spoke about his discovery that many people, as they age, see the variety of blood stem cells in their bodies replaced by a few blood stem cell clones. Although this is not associated with a particular disease, people with this condition have a higher risk of heart attack and death.

The next meeting of the Siebel Stem Cell Institute will be held at UC Berkeley in 2021.