Reflections On My First ASGCT Meeting



    Around a month ago I set off for my first American Society for Gene and Cell Therapy meeting in Washington DC. I was excited to see what our innovative and increasingly lucrative medical field had been researching. I presented our work from Talee Bio and the University of Iowa at the the first official day of the conference and it was well received by the attendees in the session. Among the highlights were a plenary session from George Church, one of the fathers of CRISPR from the MIT/BROAD side and talks from a Harvard group who claim they can speed up AAV production by hundreds of times (thus reducing cost of production) using fossilized Diatoms. There were plenty of talks and posters featuring gene therapy for cystic fibrosis and pulmonary diseases, which could be a reflection of how the Cystic Fibrosis foundations from both Europe and the US have increasingly invested their efforts. It was also fun to see progress made in just the last few years with gene therapy research in neurological disorders affecting the brain. Overall I think it was a jam packed meeting with something of interest for everyone working in academia and industry.

    This was by no means my first scientific meeting or my first presentation at a conference. In fact, Washington DC is a home town of sorts for me, since my mother works and commutes there daily from the suburbs. The Union Station food court mall was where I used to watch movies at the weekend, in between writing my PhD dissertation. Dupont Circle was where I used to take a stroll to de-stress in between finding my first postdoc position. The US Navy Yard was where I crossed and completed my fastest ever half marathon time. I have always felt at home in the DC metro area while staying with my mother in the comfort of her small house.

    However, having been relocated to the Mid-West in relatively population-sparse Iowa for the past two years, I found my senses shocked by the deluge of crowds at the ASGCT conference. At this conference, some 4000 attendees were squeezed into the Washington Hilton Hotel. While this hotel plays host to some of the biggest national events, such as the annual White House Correspondent's Dinner, the venue has clearly become too small to accommodate a modern-day international meeting on the scale requred for the ASGCT. Chief among my gripes with the venue include not having meeting rooms to host many presentations (I had to present in a hurriedly-assembled marquee at the courtyard). There was no map for the meeting rooms and you had to scramble to find where you wanted to go. The poster sessions turned out to be human traffic jams where attendees waiting in line for hors d'oeuvres packed next to scientists trying to explain their posters to large crowds, which spilled into the vendor area. There were also relatively few restaurant choices around the Hilton where people could slip off to for a quick lunch. Long lines of hungry attendees would form outside even the most obscure small bistros everyday creating long waits. This, though is a feature of meetings held in DC. Even when I used to attend the significantly larger Convention Center in Gallery Place, I could not find a huge choice of affordable restaurants. Having said that, the benefits of holding the ASGCT at a real convention center in future would be great, given the ever exploding interest in gene therapy and CRISPR technologies.

    It is understandable that the ASGCT started off as a rather small, focussed meeting over 20 years ago attended by just a few hundred scientists, well before anyone could dream of gene therapy drugs being approved by the FDA. However, given the deep impact that our field is beginning to have on society the meeting structure will have to start copying more prominent conferences such as ASCO, BIO and my old favorite, SfN.