The 2017 ESGCT Spring School took place on April 5th- 7th, in the beautiful Andalusian city Granada - a place full of charm and history that can easily mesmerise you with its fascinating Islamic influences and beautiful renaissance and baroque architecture.
Prior to the start of the Spring School lectures, some of us took the opportunity to attend the “Public engagement” workshop organized by Renée Watson and her team. Personally, I found it an incredibly fun, educational and helpful workshop that I can only strongly recommend to future participants. During the workshop, we talked a lot about the purpose and aims of public engagement, scientific communication skills, target groups, the “do’s and don’ts” and many other aspects. While public engagement is still neglected at the moment, it is poised to become a more fundamental aspect of science. To me, narrowing the gap between the scientific and non-scientific communities seems particularly important for scientists working in the field of gene and cellular therapies. The use of various genome editing approaches, viral vectors and other sensitive topics often make people feel skeptical, even fearful, towards these therapeutic approaches. Informing and engaging society more is a very efficient and powerful way to directly and successfully answer people’s questions, this in turn will help dissolve their doubts and fears. Once the society understands the potential, the risks and the benefits of such therapies they will hopefully become more aware and supportive.
The lecture series of this year’s ESGCT Spring School started with a comprehensive introduction on the discovery, characteristics and biotechnical applications of the CRISPR system, given by Prof. Francis Mojica. The CRISPR/Cas technology has certainly gained a lot of excitement and publicity with regards to its putative applications in gene and cell therapy, with its first use in a human trial already initiated last year in China and several others in planning. However, as many speakers highlighted during the course of the Spring School, there are several other genome editing technologies, such as meganuclease, TALENs and ZFNs, each one with its own strength and weaknesses, currently used in clinical trials for various human disorders with promising results. We learnt that there are also various delivery options available, including integrative or non-integrative viral vectors and several non-viral vectors based approaches. The choice of using a specific genome editing tool and delivery system is very much dependent on multiple variables: the target cell/organ, the desired modification, the duration of the therapy, the efficacy and safety of the technologies used, and whether we intend to aim for an ex vivo or in vivo correction, among others. A major part of the Spring School program focused on providing multiple examples and showing the wide range of disorders, ranging from rare monogenic to multifactorial diseases, such as cancer, in which gene and cell therapy approaches can be used as a potential and efficient treatment strategy. One of the most important take home messages, which I personally got out of the Spring School experience, is that there is no “one size fits them all” and one should always carefully consider and select the “best” delivery system, genome editing technology and therapeutic target depending on the disease/treatment aimed for. Besides the fascinating lectures, another highlight of the Spring School was the “Meet the Expert Dinner”. This was a very memorable event where we had the chance to network more with the other participants and get to know the speakers and their work better.
The Spring School ended on a high note with a tour of the Alhambra, Granada’s most emblematic monument, on the last day. The fusion of Spanish and Islamic styles of the Nasrid Palace, the beautiful blossoming gardens and its serenity, make you never forget this city and entices you to come back to learn all of its secrets.
The Spring School highlighted that the field of gene and cell therapy is continuously evolving and improving, with (sometimes hard) lessons being learned along the way. We are now in a privileged position, as massive biotechnological advancements have been made and impressive techniques have become available, bringing us closer to reach the ultimate aim: giving hope where there is none by providing treatments and, hopefully, cures for patients who might have no or limited therapeutic options.
If you are passionate about gene and cell therapies, or just curious and eager to learn more about this fascinating research field don’t hesitate and join the 2018 ESGCT Spring School!