The Keystone Symposia on Cell Biology and Immunology of Persistent Infection was held from January 31st – February 4th, 2016 in Banff, AB. This meeting was held at the prestigious Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and is designed to bring together cell biologists and immunologists from all types of research regarding persistent infection (bacterial, viral and parasitic) to discuss chronic infections. Members from academia, government and industry come together to present their current research on cellular and immunological responses to chronic infections such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. One of the main draws of this meeting is that it brings together researchers from a diverse background of infection research and provides an opportunity for people to draw on techniques and expertise from one field of infection (e.g. viral) and apply it to their own models.
I went into the conference not knowing a single person who was attending, although I did learn another member of the HPI group, Dr. Nathan Peters, was in attendance during my stay there. To be completely honest, I was slightly apprehensive not knowing anyone in attendance beforehand, but these fears were immediately put to rest during the Sunday night welcome reception. I met a graduate student working out in Newfoundland on natural killer cells as well as a couple PhD candidates from Harvard. The welcome mixer was relatively low-key but provided me an excellent opportunity to get my foot in the door and meet people that I could hang out with during the remainder of the conference. Keystone Symposia are typically well-structured conferences with talks early in the morning and mid-afternoon until dinner which allows time to steal off to a nearby ski resort, tour the town of Banff or get out onto one of the many nearby hiking trails. Talking with fellow conference-goers not from around here, they really make you appreciate how privileged we are to live so close to the Rocky Mountains!
The talks were divided up into discrete topics with a broad focus on persistent infections including: systems biology, coinfection models and the microbiome, nutrition and metabolism, cell biology, pharmacologic and biological manipulation, vaccination, and adaptive and innate immunity. One presentation in particular from industry given by Derek O’Hagan discussed the opportunities and challenges associated with vaccine development, with a focus on adjuvant design. Adjuvants, are typically small molecules included in a vaccine help stimulate the immune system to generate a stronger response. To that end they will theoretically confer stronger protection against the pathogen. Adjuvant design, as it turns out, is fascinating and highly nuanced with each adjuvant capable of inducing different responses depending on the pathogen being vaccinated against.
Other hot topics in the conference included both immune and non-immune cell autophagy pathways and their association with persistent infections, as well as immune cell exhaustion. Autophagy plays a key role in immunity and how intracellular pathogens are controlled after they gain entrance into a cell. In a stereotypical autophagy pathway, it will often lead to the fusion of the pathogen-containing vesicle with a lysosome and subsequent destruction of the pathogen. This pathway can, however, be manipulated, inhibiting lysosome fusion and allowing the pathogen to survive and thrive within the cell. Immune cell exhaustion has also become a hot topic in chronic infection research. Continuous exposure to inflammatory signals and/or antigen due to chronic infection leads to a state of T lymphocyte exhaustion. Exhausted cells lose efficient function, express inhibitory receptors and generally respond less well to a pathogen insult. Both of these research topics are much outside the current work that I do but to learn about such interesting research was really appealing to me, and the techniques that they employ often have some general applicability to my research.
The nerves I initially felt about not knowing anyone at the conference were quickly dissipated as people were extremely friendly and approachable. I met a variety of people from all over North America! After presentations concluded for the night, we would usually head off to the outdoor heated pool for a soak under the stars! The meeting was truly a surreal experience and really helped put my own research project into perspective. I also learned a great deal about immunological concepts outside the narrow scope of my own research and in doing so, broadened my knowledge base.
Overall I had a great time at this years’ Cell Biology and Immunology of Persistent Infection meeting. Being from Calgary, I got to experience a different side of Banff that locals rarely see. It was truly a beautiful setting for a conference and I found myself looking out the large windows of the hotel as often as I could. I met a lot of great people from all over the world and had the opportunity to learn about the wonderful research currently going on in the world of persistent infection, including vaccinations for HIV and Tuberculosis that are close to moving into human trials! It is all a really great motivator to move forward with my own research and discover new things in my field.
I would like to personally thank the HPI NSERC-CREATE program for this wonderful opportunity.