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AACR Annual Meeting 2017: Community Event Features Leading Cancer Experts

Cancer breakthroughs give reason for optimism, but much still needs to be done, say panelists at an AACR event in Washington, D.C. By Kevin McLaughlin

Jack Whelan is “as optimistic as ever” when it comes to treating his cancer, despite being diagnosed in 2016 with metastatic prostate cancer that hasn’t responded to traditional chemotherapy. New treatment options fuel his optimism, as they did after his 2007 diagnosis of Waldenström macroglobulinemia, a rare and incurable blood cancer. (See “Betting on Science​” in the Fall 2013 issue of Cancer Today.)

Whelan spoke at a public forum, “Progress and Promise Against Cancer,” presented by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) April 1 in Washington, D.C. The AACR Annual Meeting 2017 is being held in Washington April 1-5. 

More than 100 people from the local community turned out early on a Saturday morning to hear experts in cancer research, policy and advocacy discuss cancer care, prevention and early detection, as well as how today’s policy landscape could affect cancer patients. 

The morning program was moderated by AACR President-Elect Michael A. Caligiuri, director of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus, who walked attendees through a primer that described what cancer is and does. AACR Chief Executive Officer Margaret Foti introduced Caligiuri and provided opening remarks.

Optimism among the panelists was tempered by the knowledge that some of the most promising new treatments—like immunotherapy and targeted treatments based on molecular profiling—are effective only for a minority of patients treated, or are only effective temporarily. Another hurdle is that these treatments reach so few patients. 

“The vast majority of patients with cancer aren’t benefiting from immunotherapies,” said medical oncologist and researcher Levi Garraway, senior vice president of global development at Lilly Oncology. 

Medical oncologist Patricia LoRusso, associate director of innovative medicine at Yale Medical Center in New Haven, Connecticut, said clinical trials, where new therapies are tested, are conducted mostly in major academic hospitals or cancer centers. “Most patients are not treated in these centers,” she said “We need to get these drugs to the patients.”

Surgical oncologist Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard University in Washington, said groups underrepresented in clinical trials need to increase their participation to prevent the widening of gaps in cancer care based on factors like geographic location and race. 

Other highlights discussed during the program included:

Douglas R. Lowy, acting director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, said that, despite advances made in cancer prevention and screening, underutilization of these tools remains an issue. He mentioned in particular underuse of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that protects against cancers caused by the virus, including cervical cancer. 

Pulmonologist Avrum Spira, director of the Boston University–Boston Medical Center Cancer Center, said “we’re beginning to see hope” in early diagnosis of lung cancer. He cited wider use of helical computed tomography, an imaging technique that can identify possible lung tumors. One problem with the imaging is that it also picks up abnormalities that are not cancer; one in three lung tissues biopsied as a result of a CT scan turn out to be benign, Spira said. He described molecular testing of cells lining the airway that can help determine whether a person has lung cancer or not.

Cancer researcher Gil Omenn, chair of the AACR Health Policy Committee and a professor at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, is optimistic that deep cuts proposed in the 2017 and 2018 budgets for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will not take place. Omenn noted that there is a long history of bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for biomedical research. He cited the 21st Century Cures Act passed in December 2016, which was approved by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives with broad support from Republicans and Democrats. “There are strong champions for biomedical research on both sides of the aisle,” Omenn said.

Kevin McLaughlin is the executive editor of Cancer Today.


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