Stem Cells at the Montagna Symposium on the Biology of Skin

Photograph of Sancy Leachman

GUEST BLOGGER:  Sancy Leachman, Oregon Health & Science University

I am blogging today from the Montagna Symposium of the Biology of Skin. As most dermatologic scientists know, Montagna is developed each year as a new, independent specialty symposium, led by experts in the field, focusing on cutting-edge science that impacts the field of dermatology. The specialty topic for this year is stem cells – understanding the biology of these cells, and figuring out how to harness them to treat disease. The venue this year is spectacular, sequestered on the Oregon Coast, where we are sharing ideas, learning from each other, developing enduring relationships with collaborators, having a great time! I was incredibly “wowed” by all of the talks this year and can’t do justice to the program in this post, but you can see for yourself what the Symposium Director, Molly Kulesz-Martin and the Program Chairs Xiao-Jing Wang and Valery Horsley were able to accomplish by looking at the program online.  Science in dermatology doesn’t get much better than this!

I wasn’t able to get out to the coast in time for the keynote lecture this year because I just launched a new app (Mole Mapper)

Missing Haifan Lin discuss the story of piRNAs and how they are uniting major constituents of our genome was a major disappointment for me. Fortunately, he was willing to sit with me and Valerie over a glass of Oregon wine the next evening and share his “elevator speech” about piRNAs. Anyone who isn’t familiar with the functional importance of these areas of the genome (that had previously been characterized as “junk DNA”) should get up to speed – it is an important, expanding area of human genetics that is certain to have direct implications on human health. One of my favorite lectures so far was Melissa (Missy) Wong’s talk on cancer stem cell and macrophage fusion. It was impressive because it provided direct evidence for a concept that one of my favorite melanoma biologists, John Pawelek, has been trying to prove, for almost two decades. In fact, David Norris made the point (during a robust question and answer session) that John had proposed this hypothesis at a joint Montagna/Pan American Society of Pigment Cell Research Conference about 17 years ago. This illustrates how difficult these important observations can be to understand and prove, how deeply and passionately our scientists think and feel about their contributions to the field, and how important questions must sometimes wait for technological breakthroughs to be answered. Missy provided us with compelling evidence that melanoma and other human cancer cells fuse with macrophages, potentially explaining how cancer cells gain the ability to metastasize. This discovery will impact the full spectrum of dermatologic science, from the perspective of understanding basic biology, providing possible diagnostic clues, and ultimately, perhaps allowing the development of new targeted agents in the future.

Another provocative talk for me was by Matthew Rodeheffer, an adipocyte stem cell biologist from Yale. His presentation brought an important diversity to the conference, expanding the horizons of cutaneous biologists and opening our eyes to ways that skin interfaces and/or recapitulates virtually every organ system in the body. There are so many areas in which nutrition and obesity affect human health (and disease). The contribution Matthew has made to understanding how specific dietary fats impact the expansion of adipocyte precursors and lead to obesity is relevant not only to medicine in general, but dermatology as well.

Congratulations to all of the speakers and meeting attendees – the conference is fabulous!

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