AACR 2017: Science, With A Side Of Hope
Earlier this month, tens of thousands of cancer researchers convened on our nation’s capital for the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR). It’s the kind of meeting where I finished each day utterly exhausted. My mind was tired from taking in all the science, my feet hurt because I just can’t be convinced to wear “sensible shoes,” and my face hurt from smiling as I hugged all my friends, new and old. Providing a recap or overview of a five day, 20,000+ researcher meeting is a pretty daunting task, so I’m not even going to attempt that. Instead, I’ll share my highlights and favorite moments.
They’re really the best part of this meeting! It’s so great to catch up with old friends I don’t see anymore — either from my pre-cancer days as a researcher, friends from twitter who I’ve never actually met in real life, or advocate friends I’ve met over the years. It was a special treat to get to spend some time with a few other members of the Cure Forward Precision Medicine Advocate Team — we even all sat together at dinner the first night! In the photo, from right to left, are Cynthia Chiemlewski, Alicia Staley, myself, and Liza Bernstein.
Hugs, quick chats, and coffee dates are a very important part of a meeting like this. So too, are the opportunities to make new connections. The advocate posters that are a part of the Scientist <-> Survivor Program are all together, and it’s easy to go up and down the aisles meeting advocates and talking about ways to learn from each other.
It’s also so wonderful to meet so many of the scientists. While they hopefully can’t understand the urgency of their work in the same way a patient can, their passion and perseverance is evident as they talk about their projects, and it is reassuring to see the level of energy they put into their work.
A scientific meeting overview wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the actual science, now would it?
- The best thing that I heard — several times and from giants in the field — is that research is moving very quickly into the clinic. With the aid of technology, shared data, and collaboration, the time from idea to intervention is shortening, and getting a good drug to a patient more quickly is a huge win.
- Many presentations highlighted the use of liquid biopsies and their potential use for diagnosis, monitoring treatment response, and the detection of cancer that can’t be seen, either in a healthy population without any symptoms, or in a patient who has undergone primary cancer treatment with no evidence of disease.
- Of course, there were many presentations on immunotherapy, and it was exciting to hear Jim Allison, a pioneer in the field and recent addition to TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, talk about his idea to treat cancer by ignoring the tumor, focusing instead on the immune system. He also shared his vision for the future of immunotherapy — combining immunotherapy treatments to increase response rate.
Biostatisticians And Clinical Trials:
- Though the focus of AACR is more basic and translational research, there were some presentations focusing on clinical trials. More and more, I’m finding that biostaticians are such an important part of the team as the trials are designed to ensure that results are clear and reliable. Biostatisticians work with researchers to make sure that the number of patients enrolled in a trial will allow researchers to draw conclusions based on their outcome and that the analysis of the data is valid. Hearing their input on new, more efficient trial designs demonstrated their commitment to honor the patients enrolling on their trials by ensuring that the data generated will be meaningful and the trial will be completed in a timely manner.
- The FDA, too, was there in full force, and again, they impressed me with their desire to keep the patient in the center of all their decisions.
- I’m starting to wonder if the microbiome will be the next big thing. Lots of talks focused on the microbiome — the normal “flora” of bacteria lining the gut — and how it may play a role in disease state or treatment response.
Focus On Diversity:
- Diversity, diversity, diversity. Ensuring that the traditionally underrepresented populations are well represented in all aspects of research is so important. Though socioeconomic factors may play into the health disparities in the African American and Hispanic communities, biology may also play a role. Targeting the disparities in outcomes from both angles is critical to address the problem. The inclusion of underrepresented groups in research and clinical studies is necessary to fully understand the observed health disparities, and will be a growing emphasis in cancer research, as well as a prominent theme for AACR in 2017-2018.
I love the emphasis on teams. Collaborations give better results, faster. From a patient standpoint, there is no downside when researchers come to work together. AACR has been at the forefront for encouraging collaboration through their continued work with Stand Up To Cancer and their own AACR Team Science Award. This year’s award went to the seventeen members of the International Liquid Biopsy Initiative Team. They moved the science of liquid biopsies from an idea in the early 1990’s to the first FDA approved diagnostic that detects DNA shed from tumors in just 15 years! They are continuing to build on their foundational work, and have made dramatic technical advancements to impact patient care. They highlighted the promise of using liquid biopsies for monitoring advanced disease and acquired resistance to treatment. I was elated that they share my excitement for the use of liquid biopsies to find occult disease, monitoring cancer patients with no evidence of disease after early stage treatment and even healthy, asymptomatic adults.
It’s easy to get bogged down by how very hard science is — how complicated cancer is — at a meeting like this. Yet, there is always a new infusion of hope. Meeting energetic, enthusiastic scientists committed to changing cancer care gives me hope. But the most impactful moments of the entire conference came near the end, after Dr. Drew Pardoll shared how immunotherapy treatment has changed and improved over the course of a few decades to be able to substantially benefit patients.
— Myeloma Teacher (@MyelomaTeacher) April 4, 2017
Dr. Pardoll showed us a picture of a young woman clutching a teddy bear, listless in her hospital bed, and told her story of metastatic colorectal cancer. Her cancer had progressed after several lines of therapy, and her doctor had told her there were no options left, essentially sending her home to die. I sat with rapt attention and tears in my eyes as a beautiful, healthy, twenty-something walked to the front of the room and told us how she’d given up, and of her sister’s desperation and insistence that she find another clinical trial. After days of scouring the internet, she contacted Dr. Pardoll, was on one of his immunotherapy trials within the week, and felt relief from her agonizing pain within days of starting treatment. Now four years later, this young woman sat healthy, smiling, and has been without evidence of disease for years. Knowing that there are patients like her makes me smile, but knowing how many more there will be in the coming years — that’s the hope that brings tears to my eyes.
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Jamie Holloway is a both a scientist and a survivor, earning her PhD in tumor biology from Georgetown University a few years before her own breast cancer diagnosis. Now living with no evidence of disease after treatment for early stage triple negative breast cancer, she bridges the gap between scientists and patients as a Precision Medicine Advocate for Cure Forward and as the Patient Advocate for the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project at the Broad Institute. She works with researchers as part of the Georgetown Breast Cancer Advocates and writes about her personal experience with cancer on her blog, Run Lipstick Chemo, and as a contributor to the Cure Magazine community.