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Report from the annual AACR meeting – day 3

by Raj Mehta | Analysis

10 April 2013

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The scale of the poster hall at AACR

The scale of the poster hall at the AACR meeting

Here’s our third report from the annual American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in Washington D.C.

Today’s hot topic at the conference was the idea that not all cells in the tumour are the same – so-called ‘intratumour heterogeneity’ (something we’ve blogged about before).

In some tumours, there’s evidence of an elite population of cells called ’cancer stem cells‘ (CSCs) or ’tumour initiating cells’. These are rare, slow-growing cells that give rise to the bulk of the tumour. As they are slow growing, they are resistant to chemotherapy and are a likely source of drug resistance.

The theory is somewhat controversial, but in some cancer types – such as acute myeloid leukaemia – there’s increasing evidence that such cancer stem cells exist. Today, we heard about one of the first trials of drugs developed specifically to tackle these CSCs – a drug called Fzd8-Fc. Most targeted therapies aim to kill cancer cells, but drugs like Fzd8-Fc are designed to disable CSCs. The aim to use both drug types in combination, delivering a one-two punch, to floor the cancer and keep it floored.

Talks by high-profile scientists are the main pulling points at scientific conferences, but other things can be just as engaging. Meeting people is one of them. This is the year’s biggest cancer research conference so it’s an ideal opportunity to catch up with colleagues from other shores, swap ideas and make new connections.

And then there are ‘poster sessions’ – not advertising posters but scientific posters. Senior scientists are invited to present their work by giving talks, but posters are a great way for everyone else, particularly junior scientists, to communicate their results and engage the wider research community.

This year there are more than 6000 posters so it’s almost impossible to see them all, particularly if you’re also attending talks. Browsing posters is a bit of a guilty pleasure (if you’re looking at a poster, it usually means that you’re missing a talk) so part of your conference time is always spent totting up the potential risks and benefits of being somewhere.

Finally, there was a poignant distraction from the main conference – a Rally for Medical Research. The Rally was directed at politicians in Washington to reverse the cuts proposed by the US government for medical research.

I stopped by the rally in transit from one meeting to another, and was struck by the passion of one of the speakers. Brian Boucher spoke emotionally about how medical research helped his 15 month old daughter, Jordyn, survive what had been previously a fatal cancer. Just standing for 5 minutes listening to a proud and grateful father brought the whole conference into perspective.

Yes, it’s about communicating recent progress in cancer. Yes, it’s about meeting colleagues and presenting posters.

But, ultimately it’s about making a difference to the lives of people like Brian and Jordyn.


Raj Mehta is a business development executive at Cancer Research Technology