Kim Barrett, University of California, San Diego, USA
Immediately prior to Europhysiology 2018, a talented group of organisers (Debbie Baines, Morag Mansley, Mike Althaus and James Garnett) mounted a one-day Satellite Symposium entitled “Epithelia and Membrane Transport” (EMT) focused on various facets of epithelial biology in a wide range of clinically relevant tissues.
The event had three thematic sessions – but thereafter, the vast majority of oral presentations came from students and postdocs hailing from all over Europe, as well as from as far afield as the US and New Zealand.
The day was capped off with a large and lively poster session, with free-flowing discussions doubtless further stimulated by the concurrent drinks reception – indeed, the session ran well past its expected ending time even though it was programmed at the end of a long day of epithelial science. After the meeting, attendees dispersed to enjoy the numerous pubs and eateries in the City area – I particularly appreciated the chance to lead a group to sample Indian fare in Brick Lane, an old stomping ground from my days as a student at UCL.
The various presenters at the meeting focused their research on a variety of target tissues – including the gastrointestinal tract, airways and kidney. And the focus of their research spanned from detailed biophysical analyses in reductionist models to translational studies in patients and even clinical trials. But the common themes of epithelial biology and membrane transport ensured a robust exchange of ideas and technical approaches, with insights from one system clearly being relevant to others.
In this vein, and from a personal perspective, I was particularly excited by the scientific journey of Gabriela Krasteva-Christ and her efforts to define roles for the enigmatic brush cells of the trachea, including sensing and responding to changes in the airway surface microenvironment. The ability of these epithelial cells, which express TRP channels as well as taste receptors, to release acetylcholine and thereby regulate both nerves and immune cells, characterises them as an intriguing hybrid of neuronal and endocrine lineages. Their properties are also clearly analogous to another poorly-understood cell population, the tuft cells of the gut epithelium. Krasteva-Christ’s findings and approaches thus have clear implications for gastrointestinal physiology, and likely for the biology of other externally-facing epithelia.
Overall, therefore, this was a rewarding day of epithelial science, especially because of the early career researchers who played such a crucial role in the programme (read on for reflections from two such speakers). The caliber of not only the research, but also the presentations (oral and poster) that reported it, was outstanding. The discipline is greatly served by meetings like this one, when we come together to draw common themes across a variety of systems and thereby gain often unexpected insights.
“My experience at the EMT Satellite Symposium was fantastic,” said Alexandra Hochstetler, a first year PhD student at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
“I felt honored to have been selected to give a talk on my current research. This was by far the best conference I have been to; the science was top-notch and collaborative, and everyone was amicable and genuinely helpful. I was able to hear relevant science and to make connections that I hope to cultivate over the duration of my PhD and throughout an academic career,” she continued.
“While all of the talks were related in some way to my research, hearing André Dagenais of the Montreal Clinical Research Institute speak on the role of scratch injury on barrier function and ion transporters was one of the most interesting. His talk gave me several important clues as to how our TRPV4 ion channel may be behaving in the hydrocephalic state. Overall, this meeting attested to the quality and accessibility of epithelial biology research in Europe,” she also said.
Maximillian Woodall, a final year PhD student at St. George’s University, London said, “The EMT Satellite Symposium was an excellent opportunity for specialists to share research and early career students to communicate their ideas and establish connections worldwide with speakers from Montreal and New Zealand.”
“The symposium was unique to any other meeting I have attended; the quantity of top researchers present in this intimate conference allowed for thorough communication of my research ideas whilst receiving valuable critique and advice. It was nerve-racking presenting my work to an audience containing a number of principal investigators in whose labs I am sure I will be pursuing postdoctoral positions with next year – Rob Tarran, Michael Gray, Margarita Amaral and Yves Berthiaume! However, my methods of using patients’ sputum in cell models and implementing droplet digital PCR for quantification of a cell population were well received and discussion around the subject has birthed new ideas for my project,” he continued.
A highlight for Maximilian was Guy Moss’s talk entitled “Rapid, label-free measurement of airway surface liquid (ASL) and epithelial cell function”. “The micro-electrode developed seems to be the Swiss army knife of in vitro epithelial model functional analysis. A single system in which one can measure ASL height, cilia beat, pH and mucosity is incredibly desirable and relevant to work in cystic fibrosis treatment and analysis, a field which was well represented at the symposium. With talks ranging from basic science all the way to development of a therapy for pre-clinical trials, the symposium was exciting and relevant for all attendees,” he said.
The organisers would like to thank Newcastle University School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, The Journal of Physiology, Corning and ThermoFisher Scientific for their sponsorship.