SHOW PREVIEW: Stem cell topics among the highlights of SLAS2014

Program on innovative technology for discovery and stem cell short course for screening and laboratory R&D prove popular with attendees

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SAN DIEGO—The annual meeting of the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS), which is being held in San Diego from Jan. 18 to 22, has always been a popular show, and it looks like there won’t be any negative change on that front in this third outing, with two new symposia for the January meeting already filled to capacity when SLAS Director of Education Steve Hamilton was interviewed by DDNews in November.
One of the symposia, to be held Monday, Jan. 20, will cover innovative technology for the discovery of new medicines, presented by the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF). “It will be a peek behind the scenes at a pharmaceutical company and their technology,” Hamilton summarizes.
GNF was founded in 1999 and now has more than 560 employees. It applies integrated state-of-the-art technologies in chemistry, biology, automation and information sciences to identify new biological processes and disease-relevant mechanisms and develop new therapeutics in a variety of areas, including cancer biology, cardiovascular/metabolism, immunology, respiratory disease, neuroscience and infectious disease. These technologies include genomics and proteomics tools, structural genomics and forward/reverse mammalian genetics, high-throughput screening of genomics reagents or compounds, medicinal chemistry, ADME/PK and pharmacology.
The kind of technology SLAS2014 attendees will learn about include many systems created by the GNF engineering group, which designs and builds industry-leading, high-throughput automated systems that amplify GNF capabilities and enable GNF to tackle scientific challenges. This includes state-of-the-art, high-throughput screening systems capable of evaluating millions of compounds per day in biochemical or cellular assays, profiling systems that enable testing of thousands of compounds against hundreds of cell-based assays in parallel, automated protein production, purification and crystallography instrumentation that enable high-throughput structural genomics and protein-intensive studies and functional genomics screening systems that facilitate genome-wide cellular assessments of gene function.
Another notable program offering at SLAS2014 is a stem cell-focused short course for screening and laboratory research and development. The course is not focused on therapeutics, Hamilton stresses, but rather on techniques for standardizing the manipulation of stem cells to get valid, reproducible results. The course will look at such issues as making deriving, maintaining, characterizing and differentiating human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell  lines more easily, faster and more cost-effectively. Starting with the basics and continuing through characterization assays to lineage-specific differentiation protocols for producing physiologically relevant cell lines, the course will provide a deep-dive into the field that’s rapidly changing drug discovery.
“People are extremely curious about stem cells,” says Dr. David Kahler, former director of laboratory automation and the Flow Cytometry Services Laboratory at the New York Stem Cell Foundation. “Over the past few years, at SLAS annual meetings and elsewhere, I’ve been asked: ‘How do you work with them?’ ‘Where can we buy them?’ ‘Can we make them ourselves?’ ‘How do we get involved?’ The short course is geared toward answering those and other questions.”
Called “Introduction to the Derivation and Maintenance of Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells,” the course will be presented by Kahler, Dr. Justin Ichida, an assistant professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the University of Southern California, and Kelvin Lam, founder and president of Simplex Pharma Advisors and co-founder of the SLAS Stem Cells and 3D Microtissues Special Interest Group.
The increasing availability of various stem cell platforms and technologies is paving the way for a “new ‘hybrid’ discipline that involves collaborations between traditional stem cell scientists and traditional high-throughput screening scientists,” notes Lam. Moreover, opportunities for collaboration are surfacing “within the stem cell research community itself, because so many people are specializing in different areas.”
Underlying both the desire to learn more and the need for collaboration is a “tremendous excitement,” says Ichida. “With stem cells, we can unlock or greatly expand our knowledge about numerous diseases. Then, hopefully, we’ll be able to develop more effective treatments because we’ll be able to test them on cells that are actually affected by these conditions.”
The discovery that embryonic-like stem cells could be created from mature skin cells, first reported in 2006, laid the groundwork for the discipline as we know it today, says Kahler. “Now we can take anybody’s cells and reprogram them. And because we’re using cells from an adult, we can also take that person’s clinical history. That gives us a lot of metadata associated with those cells, and it’s something we wouldn’t have if we were working with embryonic stem cells.”
That said, turning back the clock on adult cells to produce stem cells for use in drug discovery or medicine is far from simple; protocols can be costly and time-consuming—generally, a couple of months from obtaining a tissue sample, reprogramming it, selecting clones or colonies of stem cells and characterizing them to ensure quality, Kahler acknowledges. But newer technologies, which will be explored in the short course, are making deriving, maintaining, characterizing and differentiating human iPS lines easier, faster and more cost-effective. “The field is moving very rapidly, and now one of the big goals for the industry is to be able to screen compounds and drugs on physiologically relevant cells—human cardiomyocytes, for example—instead of hamster cells. That’s where we’re heading with stem cells, and why it’s important for people to understand how to work with them.”
Ideally, stem cell-derivation technologies would produce high yields of high-quality stem cells. The reality is that in many cases, “yields are very small and there’s a lot of partially differentiated cellular trash that comes along with the quality cells,” Kahler says. Various strategies are used to physically separate out the “trash,” including manual picking of clones, magnetic beads, and Kahler’s specialty, flow cytometry and fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). While manual separation can take 20 to 30 days, Kahler notes. With FACS, a week to 10 days after cells are infected with the reprogramming material, “you dissociate them and stain them with fluorescent conjugated antibodies to specific surface markers, and then you sort them out, which cuts two to three weeks off the programming process, and also reduces the amount of expensive cell media and manual labor required to generate stem cell lines because now you are expanding an enriched population of cells expressing a unique molecular signature that identifies them as early reprogrammed induced pluripotent stem cells.”
In addition to covering strategies to derive, maintain and characterize healthy stem cell lines, the SLAS2014 short course will include a look at protocols for converting human fibroblasts into disease-affected neural cells. This requires “precise combinations of transcription factors, small molecules and growth factors,” explains Ichida, who will provide specific examples of the approach. “Let’s say we have a patient with Lou Gehrig’s disease [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS], which is caused by selective destruction of motor neurons in the spinal cord. We can now take a skin sample from a patient with the disease and coax fibroblasts out of that skin biopsy. After a month or so, single cells start growing out of the chunk of tissue. We then insert the genes for four transcription factors and wait another month. Then we take those iPS cells and in effect guide their development back into motor neurons,” he summarizes.
Will those motor neurons retain the same disease characteristics as the patient? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Ichida acknowledges. “Nobody can really say for sure, but if they do, it will allow scientists to screen on the actual diseased human cell, rather than the right cell type but from a different animal, like a mouse, or the wrong cell type from humans.”
“The power of this stem cell technology is that it allows us to study any disease that is heritable through the genome, but we don’t need to know what the genetic mutations are,” Ichida explains. “For ALS, for example, we can understand mechanistically, downstream of the genes, the effects of the mutations—what is actually going wrong in these neurons—and from there, look at ways to correct them.” Ichida’s lab has completed the first step in the process by showing that they can make bona-fide motor neurons.
“Step two, which is not yet published, is that we’re now studying the neurons we’ve produced from patients with ALS and comparing them with neurons from control groups,” says Ichida. “We’re seeing a big difference in the viability of the neurons between the two groups, with most of the motor neurons that come from patient showing a tendency to rapidly degenerate. That in itself suggests that these cells are recapitulating some of the disease processes.”
How will gaining a better understanding of stem cell biology, reprogramming techniques and the production of physiologically relevant cell lines for disease modeling affect drug discovery? In Lam’s view, this knowledge will “transform the traditional drug-discovery paradigm, which takes 15 years before you finally have a compound.” When small molecules are used to differentiate iPS cells into specific cell types, whether diseased or healthy, “they’re not hitting a single target. They’re probably modulating various signal transduction pathways, and turning on multiple biomarkers along the way,” Lam explains. “Stem cell screening is not about identifying a single drug target; it allows you to identify several targets or genes involved in key pathways, pinpointing an array of potential targets for interventions.”
Stem cell screening also is changing laboratory automation approaches, Lam observes. “Traditional high-throughput screening tends to involve the use of fancy robots with lots of moving parts. For stem cell screening, big robots don’t make sense,” he says. “Traditional screening takes about three days, then you’re done with it. But stem cell assays generally take about 28 days, so you need more of a workstation approach, with a small handheld robot and a tissue culture hood. That allows you to change media, add compounds and so on under sterile conditions, which you can’t do with big robots outside the hood.”
In the short course, Lam will compare and contrast conventional screening and stem cell screening, discuss various high content and phenotypic screening platforms for doing the latter and explain the factors—e.g., lab space, needs, budget—that participants should take into consideration when deciding on a stem cell-related technology purchase.
SLAS 2014 attendees who work in drug discovery R&D today should understand both stem cell biology and stem cell screening, Lam believes. “Stem cell biology itself is not new; it’s been around for more than 50 years. What’s new is marrying that knowledge to drug discovery to create a hybrid discipline built around a stem cell-differentiating screening paradigm,” he explains. “Like it or not, the drug-discovery field is moving rapidly in this direction on all fronts.”
Beach photo: An eclectic mix of 60’s inspired beach culture combined with boutique shopping, contemporary restaurants, meditation gardens and yoga studios, Encinitas, which is located near San Diego, is a vibrant and authentic beach town where the local surf scene rules. The beaches in Encinitas are coveted by locals as hidden gems, where the terrain ranges from white sand beaches to rocky bluffs, and legendary surf spots line the coast. (CREDIT: Joanne DiBona)
City photo: The Gaslamp Quarter is considered by many to be the heart of San Diego and is a center of downtown night life in the city. Many dining and shopping options fill the historic district, and more can be found in the nearby Horton Plaza mall. (CREDIT: Joanne DiBona)
Dolphin photo: Pictured above is the Dolphin Discovery Show, but SeaWorld San Diego also features such attractions as the Shamu show, named after the famous orca, and such rides as Journey to Atlantis, Shipwreck Rapids and Wild Arctic. Another notable draw is Turtle Reef, an attraction featuring a 280,000-gallon aquarium with some 60 threatened sea turtles, an interactive game that teaches kids about the threats turtles face in the wild, a map that tracks rehabilitated turtles and a ride called Riptide Rescue. (CREDIT: SeaWorld San Diego)

New strategy, new group leadership
CHICAGO—SLAS is decentralizing its volunteer leadership structure to achieve the international initiatives outlined in its newly updated strategic plan, which was developed for 2014 to 2016 by the SLAS Strategic Planning Advisory Committee. After being officially approved and accepted by the SLAS board of directors, the plan was posted at at the beginning of November.
“Like its predecessor, our new plan is clear and focused,” says SLAS President Jeff Paslay. “It succinctly defines our purpose, our community and the ways through which we believe we can best serve and sustain both as we expand our global footprint. One way of ensuring that SLAS programs meet the needs of local professionals and markets in Europe and Asia, as well as in the Americas, is by refining our governance structure. The formation of leadership councils in Europe and Asia will facilitate regional planning and decision-making, and will guarantee that members everywhere have active voices in our society.”
The new, decentralized SLAS leadership model creates three hands-on regional leadership councils in the Americas, Asia and Europe, which will be overseen by one executive board of directors.
“The primary responsibility of the SLAS Europe Council,” says Paslay, “is to use first-hand knowledge of the similarities and differences between our related but distinct scientific communities to successfully implement the SLAS Five-Year Business Plan for Europe.”
The groundwork for this plan was put into place in late 2012 when SLAS commissioned a comprehensive study of current and potential SLAS members throughout Europe. The results were encouraging, revealing that regular members regard SLAS very highly and are eager to become more involved on a regional basis.
“Likewise,” Paslay says, “the SLAS Asia Council will use its close connections and understanding of the Asian scientific community to evolve an effective model for member engagement and continue the SLAS Five-Year Business Plan for this part of the world.”
Story vs. Sound vs. Science
SAN DIEGO—On Wednesday, Jan. 22, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, co-hosts of the syndicated “Radiolab” program, will lead SLAS2014 attendees in a discussion of their ups, downs, successes and failures in communicating—or trying to communicate—science. They will talk about some of the techniques and tricks they’ve learned along the way, and share some “tales from the front” including their complicated feelings about the Krebs Cycle, perfect pitch, musical language, brain-body loops and mantis shrimp by way of deconstructed audio and video.
The annual meeting program alerts attendees to “Get ready for an entertaining and engaging closing keynote session from the hosts of NPR’s Radiolab.”
Abumrad, a 2011 MacArthur Fellow, is the host and creator of the 2011 Peabody Award-winning “Radiolab” and has been called a “master of the radio craft” for his unique ability to combine cutting-edge sound design, original composition, cinematic storytelling and a personal approach to explaining complex topics.
His co-host Krulwich has been called “the most inventive network reporter in television” by TV Guide. His specialty is explaining complex subjects like science, technology and economics in a style that is clear, compelling and entertaining. On television he has explored the structure of DNA using a banana; on radio he created an Italian opera, “Ratto Interesso,” to explain how the Federal Reserve regulates interest rates. He has also pioneered the use of new animation on ABC’s “Nightline” and “World News Tonight.”

Getting people connected
SAN DIEGO—This year’s annual meeting will be SLAS’ first foray into new mobile smartphone apps that will allow attendees to browse the conference schedule, view posters, hear keynote addresses, map their course on the exhibit floor and connect with one another. “We’re high-tech,” SLAS Director of Education Steve Hamilton says, “when we’re sure it adds good value.”
Among other attractive offerings will be a special program session on disruptive technologies, featuring four speakers discussing how research is done in the life sciences. The presentation will be streamed live on the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 20.  Information on how to access streaming content will be posted to as the event approaches.
Another special session will address target-based and phenotypic drug discovery in pursuit of an understanding of how to take advantage of both. “Phenotypic research is having a resurgence,” Hamilton notes, “and there will be protagonists in the audience.”
In less high-tech ways of connecting people with each other, SLAS will also provide meeting space for SIGs, or special interest groups, that hold free-form meetings to “do their own things,” Hamilton says, whether to talk, present and/or argue. Hamilton says there will be more than a dozen such SIG gatherings.
PHOTO: In bloom in April and May, the Carlsbad Flower Fields offer a picturesque view of blooming flowers, blue skies and the Pacific Ocean. Bring a hat, bottled water, and wear sunscreen (if you care about your skin). You will need all three. And you may want to visit the gift shop at the front of the fields to peruse its unique array of local items. (CREDIT: Joanne DiBona)

Expanded coverage
SAN DIEGO—As an early-2014 conference and exhibition, perhaps January’s SLAS will be a harbinger of things to come. If so, society CEO Greg Dummer paints an optimistic picture. In mid-November, he notes, SLAS2014 registration was tracking ahead of the pace of SLAS2012, also held in San Diego, which ultimately attracted 5,800 attendees.
“Conference and short-course registration is way ahead of last year,” he says, “and exhibit space is 96-percent sold. We have a built-in mechanism to keep our program fresh,” he notes, with 42 of the 49 people on the program committee new each year.
“New minds bring new experiences,” he observes, “and we actively discourage repeat speakers.” In 2015, he adds, SLAS will move to the East Coast for the first time and be hosted in Washington, D.C. “With a conference program chair from NIH, we’re looking for a D.C.-area flavor,” Dummer states. He adds that the society plans to rotate between the two major coastal hubs in future years.
In addition to likely seeing more attendees this year, Dummer notes that attendees will have more to see—and to see their own suggestions and concerns play out in the meeting’s activities. For example, by popular demand, the course featuring pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics has been expanded from a single-day to be a two-day event, he reports, after attendees at SLAS2013 expressed the opinion that one day had not been adequate.
PHOTO: The San Diego Trolley provides service from key locations downtown, including the Santa Fe Depot and the San Diego Convention Center, crisscrossing through downtown but also out to locations like Old Town and Mission Valley. Pictured here is the 12th Street Station. (CREDIT: Joanne DiBona)

SLAS Keynote Address
SAN DIEGO—On Monday, Jan. 20 in a session that will be streamed live to the general public, Dr. Eric J. Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute and chief academic officer and health professor of genomics at The Scripps Research Institute, will deliver a keynote address on The Convergence of the Digital Era and Medicine.
Topol was selected to be one of the country’s 12 “Rock Stars of Science” in GQ Magazine, and in 2011, the University of Michigan, where he had served on the faculty, initiated the Eric Topol Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine to recognize his contributions. The University of Rochester, his alma mater medical school, awarded him the Hutchison Medal, the university’s highest honor.
In 2012, he was voted the most influential physician executive in the United States in a poll conducted by Modern Healthcare. He was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and is one of the top 10 most-cited researchers in medicine. His book, The Creative Destruction of Medicine, was published in 2012.
PHOTO: Diane Powers' Bazaar del Mundo shops are purported to capture “all the color and flavor of Old Mexico in an intimate setting.” Visitors can find there specialty items from Latin America and around the world including folk art, crafts, gifts, women's fashion, jewelry and home décor. Pictured here is the Old Town location of the shop in San Diego. (CREDIT: Joanne DiBona)

Stroll the AveNEW
CHICAGO—From its main office in the Chicago area, SLAS announced recently that eight entrepreneurial start-up companies offering inventive new products and services were named to be part of SLAS Innovation AveNEW at SLAS2014, a special section located in Aisle 300 of the SLAS2014 Exhibition that will showcase a juried collection of startup companies that offer creative new solutions to the laboratory science and technology community.
Up-and-coming companies from around the world compete for positions on SLAS Innovation AveNEW, and those whose applications are accepted receive complimentary exhibit space and accessories, travel and lodging for one company representative, the opportunity to make a presentation at the popular Late Night with LRIG Rapid Fire Innovation session and promotional visibility.
“SLAS and its members thrive at the intersection of science and technology, and Innovation AveNEW has reliably provided a unique channel for bringing emerging technologies and creative new ideas into our community,” says SLAS President Jeff Paslay. “It’s one of the most popular destinations in our exhibit hall.”
At SLAS2014 the Innovation AveNEW will present the following eight promising new companies from five different countries: Coastal Genomics, Burnaby, British Columbia; MIMETAS, Den Haage, the Netherlands; MS2 Array, Pittsburgh; Plasmore, Ranco, Italy; PolyPico, Galway, Ireland; VyCAP, Deventer, the Netherlands; Quantitative Medicine, Pittsburgh; and Stackwave, Southborough, Mass.
PHOTO CAPTION: The exhibit hall presents many opportunities for SLAS annual meeting attendees to learn about companies, technologies, research and more. It is also where you will find the SLAS Innovation AveNEW. Pictured here is a scene from the SLAS2013 exhibits.

Exhibit Hall Summary
SLAS2014 exhibition hours
Sunday, Jan. 19        
4:30 p.m.-7 p.m.
Monday, Jan. 20       
10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Jan. 21      
10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Receptions in the Exhibit Hall
SLAS will also host daily receptions in the exhibit hall from Sunday through Tuesday. These receptions offer an opportunity to see technologies and visit exhibitors with whom attendees have not yet connected. At the same time, attendees can network with friends and colleagues as they enjoy complimentary beverages and hors d’oeuvres.
Sunday, Jan. 19        
5:30 p.m.-7 p.m.
Monday, Jan. 20        
5:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Jan. 21        
5 p.m.-6 p.m.

SLAS --Where science and technology unite
SLAS notes that “Dynamic industries attract dynamic people,” and proudly represents a community of more than 18,000 life science research and development professionals from across the globe, including scientists, technology providers, researchers, academics and students, engineers, informatics specialists and business leaders. The organization makes connections between professionals in science and technology through a year-round program of networking and educational opportunities.
“Think of us as your passport to the world of collaborative innovation,” the SLAS website states. SLAS serves its members across a broad array of scientific and technology disciplines and areas of interest:
Micro-nano technology
Focuses on the life science and chemistry application of microfluidics, microfabrication, nanotechnology, microscale detection, analysis and synthesis.
Molecular diagnostics and biomarkers
Teaches how the analytical use of DNA, RNA, proteins and other molecules can be used to test for specific biological states, conditions or disease.
Drug Target Biology
Teaches how to better understand drug target/cellular pathways via the use of sophisticated assay design and/or phenotypic responses.
Bioanalytical Techniques
Delves into the sub-discipline of analytical chemistry, covering the quantitative measurement of compounds or molecules in biological systems
Scientific Informatics
Aims to give insight into the use of computer technology in various scientific disciplines and the application of computers and telecommunications equipment to store, retrieve, transmit, manipulate and interpret data.
Laboratory Automation and High Throughput Technologies
Teaches how to capitalize on laboratory technologies that improve the processes, increase productivity, elevate experimental data quality, reduce lab process cycle times and/or enable experimentation.
Assay Development and Screening
Focuses on the design and use of biochemical, cellular or organism-based experiments to rapidly identify compounds, antibodies or genes which cause a particular biological response.
Drug Discovery
Teaches how technology can accelerate the development of new candidate medications.
Whether you are a well-established researcher looking to leverage the power of new technology, or a student interested in pursuing a career in life sciences R & D, join SLAS to see how you can transform research and transform your career.

PHOTO: You thought that stepping on a LEGO brick with bare feet hurts? Try riding a raft made of them. In actuality, though, the water park at LEGOLAND California—just 30 minutes north of San Diego—allows kids to customize their own rafts, made of soft LEGO bricks and float down a lazy river. (CREDIT: LEGOLAND California)

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