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Reflections from AACR

By BCRF | May 5, 2016

BCRF’s Dr. Margaret Flowers Recaps the Annual Conference

This post was written by Margaret Flowers PhD, Associate Director, Grants Program and Scientific Communications of BCRF

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) hosted its 107th annual meeting in New Orleans April 16-20th. The AACR annual meetings are attended by thousands of scientists from around the world and feature a multidisciplinary program including hundreds of talks from invited speakers and thousands of posters, similar in structure to the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium we reported on in December, but many times larger. The topics presented cover all aspects of cancer research from discovery-based laboratory science to updates on clinical trials and emerging scientific and clinical trends. This year’s theme, “Delivering Cures Through Cancer Science,” emphasized the inextricable link between laboratory research and advances in patient care.

BCRF attends several scientific conferences throughout the year. Scientific meetings are key for us to stay up to date on discoveries and trends in breast cancer research and clinical trials and provide an opportunity for face time with our BCRF-funded investigators who travel from all over the world to attend and often speak at the major conferences.

I attended the AACR meeting in New Orleans with my colleague, Deanna Clevesy, BCRF Communications Manager, armed with itineraries of daily presentations along with pen, paper and smart phone to record highlights and meet with grantees. The one thing we did not bring was roller skates, which would have been extremely helpful in navigating the sprawling Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

More than 80 BCRF investigators attended this year’s AACR meeting, many were invited speakers or chairs of symposia; many more presented data from their laboratories in poster sessions that were held throughout the five-day meeting. Deanna and I did our best to cover the salient sessions, meet with grantees and to report highlights in our daily blogs and social media posts. Kudos to Deanna and the BCRF communications staff in New York who kept the wires pulsing with AACR news through our BCRF channels.

The meeting ended a couple of weeks ago and my head is still swimming with all that we did not get to report. We will continue to share posts from the meeting, but a quick rundown on highlights include:

BCRF investigator highlights

BCRF Scientific Advisor, Nancy Davidson officially assumed her new role as 2016-17 President of AACR. She joins a growing list of BCRF investigators who have served in the prestigious role as president of the largest cancer research organization in the world, including, Carlos Arteaga, Judy Garber, Geoffrey Wahl and Susan Horwitz.

Dr. Robert Weinberg, BCRF investigator since 2003, was honored with the AACR Lifetime Achievement Award in Cancer Research.

Dr. William Kaelin, BCRF investigator since 2006 was this year’s recipient of the Annual AACR Princess Takamatsu Memorial Lectureship. This award recognizes a scientist whose work has had or may have a far-reaching impact on the detection, diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of cancer. Past BCRF recipients of this award include Dr. Lewis Cantley and Dr. Mary-Claire King.

Clinical trials and emerging therapies 

Dr. Judy Garber further expanded on the topic of panel testing in a Meet the Expert session, emphasizing the need to classify mutations of unknown significance. She referred to the PROMPT registry, a multi-institution collaboration designed to collect information from patients who have received gene panel testing. The objective of the PROMPT registry is to follow people with mutations or variants in genes on these panels, so that patients, physicians, and researchers can more clearly understand these lesser-known risks. Information obtained from the registry will ultimately inform clinical decisions for the future.

For certain mutations with a clear link to cancer, basket trials, such as the NCI-MATCH in which patient treatments are based on the molecular profile of the tumor rather than a specific type of tumor may provide valuable insights into rational combination therapies, as well as drug resistance across cancer types. 

For more on clinical trials, read our blogs on the MINDACT trial and other clinical trial updates here


Dr. Elaine Mardis (Washington University, St. Louis) highlighted some of the ways in which genomics technologies such as next generation sequencing of tumors can be integrated into clinical practice. Some of these include identification of new therapeutic targets, increasing our understanding of the common mechanisms between inherited cancer susceptibility mutations and mutations that occur during cancer development and in enhancing immunotherapy by targeting tumor-associated antigens–cell surface proteins that are a result of gene mutations in the tumor cells and are subsequently recognized by the immune system.

A rapidly emerging gene editing technology called CRISPR (short for: Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) has been making headlines in both the scientific and popular press. Dr. Feng Zhang (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) discussed how CRISPR technology, which was harnessed from a biological process in bacteria, is dramatically changing how scientists study the effect of specific genes mutations in diseases, such as cancer.

Liquid biopsy technology, while still in its infancy, continues to evolve. The ability to monitor tumor response to therapy as well as tumor evolution–the transition from a non-malignant to an invasive state –at the single cell or DNA level from a sample of blood could have significant impact on many aspects of cancer care and management.

Tumor biology

BCRF investigators, Kornelia Polyak and Joan Brugge presented talks on how the tumor microenvironment influences tumor heterogeneity (molecular and genetic diversity within a tumor) and ultimately tumor progression.  Dr. Brugge described how factors in the microenvironment influence genetic changes within single tumor cells and how distinct clones (groups of tumor cells that originated from the same cell) cooperate to promote tumor growth. Dr. Polyack spoke specifically about the influence of immune cells (called TILs) around the tumor. She noted that understanding the interactions between tumor cells and TILs will not only improve our understanding of tumor evolution, but will enable the design of improved cancer therapies that overcome drug resistance.

Finally, there was much coverage of Vice President Biden’s address on the final day of the conference. In his address, the VP pledged more government support for cancer research as part of the new Cancer Moonshot Initiative. The overarching goals of the initiative are to reassess resources to accelerate research and development in technology and biology, as well as rethinking how we do cancer research. Read more on our blog here.

BCRF will continue to share news from AACR 2016 as it becomes available.