The American Association for Cancer Research’s 106th Annual Meeting brought together 35,000 of the world’s leading cancer researchers, health care professionals and advocates to discuss advances in cancer research and the future of patient care.
The conference was overwhelming in size, with each day full of hundreds of different seminars, meetings, poster sessions and talks. The Philadelphia Convention Center buzzed with the energy of scientific discovery.
While advances in diagnosis and treatment have allowed over 14,500,000 cancer patients to live cancer free, millions of patients continue to struggle with their cancer.
The prevalence of cancer continues to rise in part because cancer cells have the ability to evolve to evade treatment. Cancer also differs in each patient. The word cancer encompasses hundreds of different diseases, with different causes, symptoms and treatments.
The theme of this year’s meeting was “Bringing Cancer Discoveries to Patients,” bridging the gap between scientists at the lab bench and patients in the clinic.
“This new era of cancer discovery is unprecedented with respect to rapidly emerging cancer science and new and effective targeted therapies,” Margaret Foti, the CEO of the association, said. “Today, molecular target approaches are being utilized based on a greater understanding of the biology of cancer.”
An area of focus at the conference was immunotherapy, or harnessing the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Several therapies are being developed that identify cancer cells as foreign or promote the aspects of the immune system that can destroy cancer cells.
Clinical trials conducted by Merck found that one drug, Pembrolizumab, was effective and safe for use in malignant mesothelioma and non small-cell lung cancer. The drug targets a protein expressed on tumor cells, and tumor immune cells, and has a better response rate and disease control rate than chemotherapy.
Pembrolizumab is just one of hundreds of drugs and potential treatments outlined at the conference.
Additionally, scientists at Vanderbilt University combined two powerful tools, mass spectrometry and microscopy, to create a revolutionary image fusion technique.
For the first time, scientists can merge images to see the structure and molecular composition of tissue on one image, which has the potential to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Image fusion utilizes the strengths of each technique. Microscopy produces clear images of structures, but does not provide any information on the presence of molecules. Mass spectrometry shows the presence and location of proteins, lipids, drugs and other molecules, but the image is pixelated.
It is difficult for doctors to look at a cell and tell if it is in the process of becoming cancerous due to the similar physical characteristics of normal and precancerous cells.
By combining the cell structure and presence of specific proteins and lipids onto one image, doctors will be able to better differentiate precancerous cells from normal cells, leading to more accurate cancer diagnoses and treatment.
Several sessions also included patients, survivors and patient advocates as a reminder of the clinical need for cancer research and the importance of outreach and science communication efforts.
The meeting fostered collaboration amongst scientists to accelerate development of cancer diagnostics and treatments.