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The Chemistry and Biology of Cell Death

James Clulow

12 Mar 2014

With financial support from SCI via a Messel Award bursary, I was lucky to be given the opportunity to attend the Keystone symposium titled 'The Chemistry and Biology of Cell Death' in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA from 18-23 February 2014, James Clulow reports.

The symposium aimed to bring together expertise from a broad scientific background focused on understanding the distinct mechanisms and signalling pathways that cell death can occur through. This was a major international meeting in the area with an exemplary scientific programme with topics such as apoptosis, necroptosis, mitophagy and autophagy heavily featured.

The symposium was hosted at the Santa Fe Community Convention Centre, right in the heart of Santa Fe. Made up of a population of less than 70,000 people, this small city with a plethora of excellent restaurants, museums, art galleries and historical culture provided an excellent backdrop for the meeting that really lived up to Santa Fe's mantra as 'The City Different'.

There were about 160 delegates in attendance at the symposium, with over 25 different nationalities. The meeting was also run in parallel with another highly related Keystone symposium titled 'Mitochondrial Dynamics and Physiology' which brought the total number of delegates to around 400, really making it feel like the whole of central Santa Fe was taken over by symposium attendees!

My PhD work has focused on designing a novel platform for profiling the protein targets of small molecule electrophiles from dietary sources that have interesting biological activity, to better understand their mode of action, particularly in cancer model systems.

With this in mind, we are hoping to elucidate potential new drug targets and better understand the therapeutic potential of such dietary electrophiles which have received widespread public and scientific interest in recent years. Many of the targets of the compounds we have been studying have been associated with cell death mechanisms and so my work really fitted nicely into the theme of the meeting.

However, I am also relatively new to the field of cell death. Much of my work has been in the development of the chemical proteomic technology itself and it is only until recently that we are beginning to show the significance of cell death targets within our datasets and gain functional insight into the biology.

As such, the symposium provided an excellent opportunity to broaden my insight into the field and speak face to face with many of the key members in this area. This gave me a great opportunity to put into context the significance of my work in relation to cell death and the numerous underlying pathways.

Personal highlights over the symposium included talks by Matt Bogyo, Brent Stockwell, David Andrews, Mark Hampton, Jennie Lill and Jim Wells who all appealed to my chemical biology side, but the keynote session that started the conference off with talks by Vishva Dixit and Jodi Nunnari really sold me into the field and the meeting from the first instance from which I never looked back.

The symposium organisers also gave me the opportunity to showcase my PhD work, having being accepted to deliver a short talk. Presenting in a session containing leading figures not only in the cell death field but also at the chemistry-biology interface was by far and away a major highlight of my PhD thus far. I felt my work was warmly received by the community and I got some excellent questions (if not somewhat challenging!).

The opportunity to give a short talk in addition to presenting a poster at the symposium led me to a number of really interesting discussions throughout the meeting, which will certainly help to dictate the future direction of the remainder of my PhD studies and gave me a whole host of ideas to take back with me to the lab.

The ethos of the Keystone symposium meant that it was equally as easy to talk to a senior PI as it was to a fellow PhD student, which is an attitude that should really be championed. With a number of lively poster sessions and informal meals that were provided throughout the symposium, I was able to discuss my own work, as well as that of others, with my peers. This gave me a real insight into opportunities available globally in scientific research that I found very informative as I look ahead to life after my PhD.

I am extremely grateful to SCI for providing me with support to attend this Keystone symposium. It was the first time I've had the opportunity to expose my work to a truly international field, and I hope it is not the last time I get the opportunity to do so! The symposium left me with a wealth of new knowledge, ideas and friends that I hope will stand me in good stead for the future.

James Clulow
Imperial College London

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