The annual American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting—one of the world’s largest cancer research conferences—drew more than 20,000 researchers, patient advocates, and others from academic and medical institutions, industry/pharma, and more for days of scientific presentations and collaborations.
AACR meetings provide an overarching look at research developments across the spectrum of all cancers. Although this multidisciplinary meeting is not focused on any one cancer, BCRF investigators were still prominently featured—leading many sessions, receiving top honors, and serving in leadership roles. Dr. Robert Vonderheide played a major role in organizing the meeting, the theme of which was “Advancing the Frontiers of Cancer Science and Medicine,” as well as chairing the opening session. Drs. Joan Brugge, Sohail Tavazoie, Carlos Arteaga, and Christopher Li led “Meet the Expert” sessions.
Here, BCRF team members summarize key takeaways and highlights.
The American Cancer Society Award for Research Excellence in Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention was presented to Dr. Patricia Ganz for her outstanding contributions to breast cancer prevention and survivorship. A BCRF investigator since 2001, Dr. Ganz has pioneered methods to assess how breast cancer affects an individual’s quality of life, and she has focused much of her clinical and research efforts in understanding breast cancer and defining ways to prevent it.
Also of note, BCRF investigator (since 2014) Dr. Elizabeth Jaffee received the Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements in Cancer Research for her years of service to the cancer community and her exceptional research to advance cancer therapy. Dr. Jaffee is an internationally recognized expert in cancer immunology. Her research has focused on developing novel immunotherapies for treating and preventing pancreatic cancer. She has applied this expertise to her BCRF-supported project optimizing immunotherapy for metastatic breast cancer.
One of the meeting’s major moments was a presentation on the Biden Administration’s relaunched Cancer Moonshot from Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, who was a BCRF investigator until she was named director of the National Cancer Institute in October and who is likely to be nominated to serve as director of the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Bertagnolli shared that the reignited Cancer Moonshot program will build on the research conducted during phase 1 of the Moonshot initiative, which yielded a remarkable foundation from which to accelerate progress to achieve its ambitious goal: a 50 percent decrease in cancer mortality in 25 years.
A wide range of national programs are being launched to research and improve telehealth practices, diversify researchers and approaches, study multi-cancer detection tests as an approach to screening, provide widespread access to care in every corner of the country, and expand early detection services across underserved populations.
Predicting recurrence and treatment response
Presentations showed that researchers are quickly moving the needle toward precision medicine. BCRF investigator Dr. Alana Welm has developed a model system that has potential to predict whether a person’s breast cancer will recur or how it will respond to therapy. She reported that these patient-derived models are in clinical trials (the phase 1 and 2 TOWARDS trials) to test this.
Tumor cells from patients newly diagnosed with local or locally advanced hormone receptor-low/HER2-negative or triple-negative breast cancer are isolated and sent to a laboratory where they are used to “recreate” the tumor. Welm’s technique yields patient-derived models that can then be studied to identify biomarkers that predict recurrence and optimize strategies to inform treatment decisions back in the clinic—demonstrating true bench-to-bedside science.
Detecting breast cancer earlier
Detecting cancer at its earliest stages is vital to improving patient outcomes. Presentations dedicated to this topic were peppered throughout this year’s AACR meeting. Notably, Dr. Peter Kuhn chaired the “Early Detection and Interception of Cancer” session where presenters discussed novel insights on carcinogenesis, the process by which cancer is formed. As part of this session, fellow BCRF investigator Dr. Shelley Hwang delivered an elegant talk on the multidisciplinary efforts currently being conducted to identify the best moment to intervene during breast cancer progression.
As she reported, research in breast cancer biology has uncovered novel characteristics of cells that make up ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS; considered an early form of breast cancer) as well as cells in the precancer ecosystems that can permit or inhibit the progression and invasion. These findings are being used to build risk stratification tools that may help define treatment recommendations based on risk of progression. Stratifying the risk of developing invasive breast cancer will allow researchers and clinicians to glean new insights to better identify which patients will derive greatest benefit from intervention—thereby sparing others unnecessary overtreatment.
Dr. Kuhn concluded the session by calling attention to the complexity of early cancer at the society level and the need for equal access to testing to reach Cancer Moonshot’s ambitious goals.
Innovating cancer treatment
Several sessions at this year’s AACR meeting covered new developments in drug discovery and engineering in light of technological advances that have given researchers innovative ways to design and produce new cancer therapies and finetune existing ones. The recent success of antibody-drug conjugates for solid tumors like breast cancer in particular has enlivened this field, and innovation continues to accelerate as other next-generation cancer therapeutics are rapidly produced and tested including engineered proteins, antibodies, microRNAs, and nano-carriers.
Managing pregnancy and cancer
BCRF investigator Dr. Ann Partridge chaired a notable symposium at AACR focused on patient-centered, evidence-based approaches to managing cancer during pregnancy. Dr. Partridge led a discussion on the unique challenges that pregnant women face after a breast cancer diagnosis and her recent study showing that pausing endocrine therapy for pregnancy doesn’t impact-short term breast cancer outcomes. Other presenters in this session movingly spoke about the difficult choices these patients must make that can impact their babies, their lives during pregnancy and beyond, and their future fertility.
This year’s AACR conference once again provided an opportunity for BCRF investigators and others to come together to share knowledge and discuss the latest in cancer research—and was made even timelier by the relaunched Cancer Moonshot and recent treatment breakthroughs.
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