The following account is written by Beth Ormrod and Amy Pearce on their experiences in the 9th Ascona International Workshop on Cardiomyocyte Biology in Switzerland. 

In April, we had the privilege to attend the 9th Ascona International Workshop on Cardiomyocyte Biology, this is an intimate gathering of cardiomyocyte biologists from around the world, held every three years. For our first ever conference, we have selected well – with constant sunshine, stunning views and a nice budget for booze.

Ascona, Switzerland isn’t exactly the easiest destination to reach but after 4 trains, 2 buses, 1 flight, 1 stop-over and a very steep hill we had arrived (albeit via Milan).

The conference began on Sunday 22nd April at the Monte Verità, with a session focussed on development, which introduced the hot topics of the week: long non-coding RNAs (IncRNAs), induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and engineered heart tissues (EHTs). The afternoon finished with the keynote lecture given by Professor Thomas Eschenhagen – ‘Translating the promises of induced pluripotent stem cells in cardiovascular research’, he gave a history of how far we have come in this field, focussing on the limitations we face and the successes that have been achieved to date. It was really eye-opening and inspiring and was a great way to kick off the week of science ahead.

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The really nice thing about this conference is that the attendees were sat down for formal lunches and dinners (three courses we might add!) giving us the opportunity to socialise with leaders in the field as well as fellow students working in similar areas. After dinner everyone would head out to the terrace overlooking Lake Maggiore and discuss topics ranging from research to reality tv, over a glass of red (or three).

 

Monday morning we were up bright and early for breakfast on the terrace and then into the conference lecture theatre for an 08:15 start. The day began with welcomes from the Congressi Stefano Franscini (CSF) and the Fondazione Monte Verità, where we learnt that at the beginning of the nineteenth century Ascona attracted those seeking an ‘alternative’ life (we’re talking nudists and ideologists, google it). Monte Verità quickly became a hub for meetings and discussions and since 1989 it has housed the center “Congressi Stefano Franscini” (ETH Zurich), which to this day draws thousands of scientists from around the world to Monte Verità every year.

We quickly got back to science for a morning session focussed on differentiation and maturation which proved beneficial for the iPSC devotee (Beth), we heard about proliferation, exosomes and protecting the heart from cancer therapies, with an overall theme that addressed the maturation issue of iPSC derived cardiomyocytes. Following lunch came the cardiomyocyte pathophysiology session in which our very own Randaller Dr Elisabeth Ehler gave a talk on structural changes at the intercalated disc in dilated cardiomyopathy. Other talks focussed on genetic diversity in cardiomyopathy, optical mapping and drug screening. Dr Lucie Carrier an expert in MyBP-C (Amy’s area of research) gave a talk on its role in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Next came the dreaded poster session for Amy. We had to give a 4-minute presentation to a panel of conference organisers followed by some tricky and challenging questions. Sounds scary but drinks were already flowing and a lovely dinner followed.

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Tuesday morning started with a session on signalling and metabolic pathways, an area completely foreign to us however we heard talks on metabolism in heart failure, mitochondrial redox regulations and extracellular vesicles as therapy delivery tools. Beth’s poster session followed, this time with sandwiches provided…

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Our favourite part of the week was Tuesday afternoon spent at the Botanical gardens on the Brissago Islands. We caught a boat from the port of Ascona and were given a guided tour of the gardens followed by a lovely dinner at the Ristorante Isola di Brissago.

The final day commenced with a session on inflammation and fibrosis, we had the pleasure of hearing an ex-Randaller Dr Thomas Iskratsch talk about matrix rigidity and mechanical stress in cardiomyocytes. This session also included talks on macrophages in cardiovascular health, collagen deposition in myocardial fibrosis and microRNAs in inflammation. The afternoon session focussed on heart regeneration which ended the conference with a positive outlook for cardiobiologists going forward.

Dinner on the final night was kindly provided by the organising committee, it was held at Ristorante L’Osteria Nostrana which sat on the lakefront and we were able to enjoy some local cuisine (limoncello too). Sounds very luxurious when we omit the three hundred and ninety-eight steep stairs we had to climb back up to the hotel after one too many drinks.

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We are very grateful to have attended this conference, it was extremely beneficial for both of us from a research point of view as well as a great chance to meet others in the field. Cardioascona gave us the opportunity to establish some great collaborations that will help advance our PhD projects and provide us with insight for the future. We would like to thank The Centre for Doctoral Studies, The British Society for Cell Biology and The British Heart Foundation for their generous travel grants that allowed us to attend this amazing conference.