Anticipation for the 2019 Spring School was at a record high, with the coveted 150 spaces being fully booked in less than 3 weeks after registration opened. Students at various levels: bachelor’s, master’s, MD and PhD, as well as recent PhD graduates – otherwise called early career researchers (ECRs), made sure to capitalise on the great opportunity to participate in one of Europe’s leading training programmes. As with previous years, a new city was chosen for hosting the ESGCT’s 4th Spring School – Naples, Italy. The hosting institution was the Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine (TIGEM) located in Pozzuoli, about 30 km from Naples. The Alberto Auricchio-led team at TIGEM worked cohesively with ESGCT to ensure that everyone received the full gamut of Italian hospitality in addition to great science.
To get things started, an ice-breaker activity was organised by the student board members for those who arrived a day early in Naples. A relaxed evening was spent at the historic Neapolitan treasure that is Gran Caffè Gambrinus. Students were able to treat themselves to Gambrinus’ delights, socialise and get an impression of what to expect in the following days from the student board members. Afterwards they were free to roam around and have some personal time in Naples. Luckily, a night of fun did not prevent anyone from showing up the next day for the official start of Spring School. Limited numbers of registered students participated in one of three workshops before the official inauguration of the event. The ESGCT also listened to students’ suggestions on improvements and offered the new workshop ‘Grant proposals and funding’, which PhD students and ECRs in particular found especially timely and important.
TIGEM’s location overlooking the Bay of Naples provided a beautifully serene escape from the hustle and bustle of Naples city centre, thereby encouraging an even more relaxed learning environment. However, that also meant that delegates had to make roundtrip journeys between both locations on the coaches provided by the organisers. Students were given the rare and unique opportunity of asking some experts questions in a more intimate fashion while on the coaches. These ‘Ask the Expert’ coaches were more than just a shuttle service between locations but also served the fundamental purpose of maximising the students’ access to scientific expertise throughout the 3 days. Moreover, this ingenious and practical use of the commute time was praised by both students and experts.
The core part of the programme is the quality of science that is delivered to students. As such, the ESGCT does not understate that Spring School is indeed “an intensive three-day training course”, and it does so uncompromisingly to ensure that delegates receive the most comprehensive overview of the field. This year was no different to previous years with excellent talks ordered in sessions covering topics such as delivery tools; gene and cell therapies for primary immunodeficiencies, eye diseases and liver; immunotherapy and cancer. There was a mix of local and international scientists who barred none in highlighting the great research being conducted within their gene and cell therapy spheres, which in most cases have impactful global reach. Andrea Ballabio in his opening keynote, convinced (almost) everyone to adopt the lysosome as their new favourite organelle due to their important role in health disease. There were many profound lectures which followed, but Michele De Luca’s presentation for example was certainly a highlight – emotional and inspiring yet powerful. He lectured on the topic “Cell and gene therapy by somatic stem cells: the paradigm of epithelial stem cells”, wherein he outlined the fundamentals of his keratinocyte transplantation approach in preserving the life of Hassan who suffered from severe junctional epidermolysis bullosa. His work, like many others including Juan Bueren’s “Gene therapy of inherited bone marrow syndromes”, underscores the collaborative effort between clinicians and researchers in order to truly bring the respective therapies from bench to bedside. Furthermore, partnership between international gene and cell therapy communities was evidenced by the presence of the ASGCT’s president elect Guangping Gao, who delivered his keynote on “Human gene therapy: the road to today and beyond”. As one of the pioneers of the field, Luigi Naldini also gave a retrospective analysis of the therapies in his closing keynote, and moderated an in-depth discussion with delegates on issues concerning ethics in research currently and what needs to be achieved long-term. It was quite promising that the future gene and cell therapists present were so highly vested in this topic, implying that the ESGCT is doing well in training conscientious researchers.
Scientific sessions were complemented with networking socials as an integral part of the programme. Delegates were taken on a guided tour of Pozzuoli which culminated with dinner overlooking the Bay of Naples. Of course, one could not be in Naples without sampling one of its best known creations – pizza! Therefore, the organisers planned an evening just for that, and it was amazing! One of the most remarkable experiences of Spring School is also the approachability of principal investigators, some of whom were even so inclined to take a stroll through Naples and have gelato with students. Priceless and memorable moments are always to be had at Spring School and by extension all ESGCT events. Similar to the programme opening, Hildegard Büning and Alberto Auricchio officially brought this year’s staging to a close on a high note. It is evident that Spring School will be a mainstay considering its overwhelming success and growing demand by the scientific community.
The ESGCT Spring School is a package – free admission to world-class lectures with exposure to the best experts in gene and cell therapy; organized accommodation for booking; cultural experience in an exquisite European city; networking and fun with like-minded individuals! It is a valuable resource that is offered to ESGCT’s student members who are new to gene and cell therapy with the aim to enhance their intellectual acuity in the field and add to their overall holistic development. It also provides students closer access to the experts and their research that would otherwise be challenging at the ESGCT congress. The take-home message is that students and ECRs should register acknowledging that the tailored package is for their benefit and requires them to show up dedicated to utilise it as intended. This platform, and many others by ESGCT, serves the community in a crucial way and all are encouraged to become stakeholders.