At the turn of the 20th Century, European scientific advancements such as the discovery of x-rays and radium inspired clinicians to believe that cancer was no longer a hopeless case and that a cure would be discovered. To support and drive forward this scientific development, in 1907 a small group of physicians established a professional body to disseminate the latest and best research. This organization went on to become the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the oldest and largest professional body of its kind in the world.

Over one hundred years later AACR has developed into a critical support and advocacy organization for cancer research, working both in and out of the laboratory to achieve its mission statement to “prevent and cure cancer through research, education, communication, and collaboration”. Ahead of the Association’s 2016 Annual Meeting in April, AACR program chair Scott Armstrong took a moment to tell us more about the Association and its work, and to give us a preview of what to expect in New Orleans this year.

In many respects the world of 2016 is not dissimilar to that of 1907: the field of medical research is changing just as rapidly, and has just as much promise but instead of x-rays and enhanced cellular pathology, research has galvanized around genomics.

Using genomic tools researchers now have the ability to examine the intricate genetic changes that trigger certain cancers; that make one tumour type more or less resistant to certain medications; or that make some individuals more predisposed to the disease than others. Such technological advances have enormous potential to realize the dreams of AACR’s turn-of-the-century founders. Scott notes that “the AACR was advancing the field of precision medicine decades before the phrase was even coined.”

“The AACR has been at the forefront of setting the research agenda for the cancer community,” says Scott, “and as the needs of the field have expanded and shifted, the AACR has consistently been a leader in identifying priorities and guiding overall direction to propel cancer research forward.”

“In 2013, the AACR introduced the Precision Medicine conference series to provide a platform for experts in the field to share the technological advances being made and to foster collaborative research to move the field forward.”

Collaboration and data-sharing have become central themes for the development of effective precision medicine. Responding to what was felt to be an unmet need in oncology, AACR has launched its own collaborative data-sharing initiative. AACR Project GENIE (Genomics, Evidence, Neoplasia, Information, Exchange) is, as Scott explains, a “multiphase, multiyear initiative to collect, catalog, and link tumor genetic data with data on patient outcomes with the ultimate goal of empowering health care providers with the knowledge and resources to identify the right treatment for the right patient.” Through its database GENIE aims to provide clinicians with the statistical power needed to make smart clinical decisions, particularly around rare cancers, or rare variants in common cancers.

Beyond the laboratory, precision medicine for cancer treatment is enjoying a long stint in the political spotlight. The Precision Medicine Initiative and the Cancer “Moonshot” have created increased political focus on and excitement about the sector, and many of the key developments in driving precision medicine into the clinic have come about through cancer research and treatment.

“In response to Vice President Joe Biden’s quest for “a moon shot in this country to cure cancer,”” says Scott, “the AACR convened a distinguished panel of cancer researchers and physician-scientists who met with the vice president’s office to offer insight into priorities that can help achieve the vice president’s vision. Biden also invited leaders from the AACR to provide their thoughts and guidance at the special session, “Cancer Moonshot: A Call to Action,” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January this year.”

Even when empowered by new technologies, political will and public support, the challenges facing an organisation like AACR are not small. “The biggest challenge is finding a cure for more the more than 200 diseases we call cancer,” says Scott.

“While AACR members are at the forefront of scientific discovery and innovations in treatment, U.S. investment in medical research funding must keep pace with the opportunities to further our understanding of this complex disease in order to make the progress we know can be achieved.”

To keep up the momentum, AACR have taken a significant leadership role in maintaining the national dialogue and keeping the conversation moving. Imagine 300 organisations converging on Capitol Hill to discuss the importance of medical research funding. This is AACR’s annual Rally for Medical Research, held every September since 2013 to keep political focus on the critical link between research funding and precision medicine.

“We also brought together some of the greatest minds in cancer research to advise Vice President Biden as he launched his cancer initiative,” says Scott. “We’ll do more of this – the AACR believes that facilitating collaboration and data sharing are two vital components to advancing our pursuit of conquering cancer.” 

The overarching theme for AACR’s 2016 Annual Meeting is “Delivery Cures Through Cancer Science”, focusing on the crucial link between activity in the lab and improved patient outcomes. “The AACR annual meeting is always a remarkable collection of talks on the latest in cancer science including the latest mechanism based clinical trials,” explains Scott. “There is no doubt there is something of interest to everyone who does cancer research.”

For this year’s Annual Meeting, Scott has identified a number of key themes, namely “tumor heterogeneity, immunotherapy, epigenetics, tumor metabolism and cancer genomics.” The plenary sessions, taking place across all five days of the Meeting, will explore all of these topics in greater detail. “Another very exciting area is the development of technologies to detect circulating tumor DNA in blood,” Scott adds. “This has the potential to revolutionize our ability to detect tumors early and to follow therapeutic responses.” The opportunity and the promise of liquid biopsies will be explored in detail as part of a plenary session (Wednesday, April 20) chaired by Caroline Dive from Cancer Research UK.

All in all delegates can expect a programme containing hundreds of invited talks and more than 6,000 papers from researchers around the world. When writing event previews, we always ask how a first-time attendee can best navigate an event of this size and diversity to make the most of their time. “It is impossible to catch everything so plan ahead,” Scott suggests.

“Definitely attend the plenary sessions as these will cover many of the hottest topics. I would include the clinical trials plenaries in this group.” These plenaries, a “Spotlight on Clinical Trials”, feature a series of paired presentations that show the scientific foundation of a clinical trial alongside the data from the trial.

Early-career researchers can expect a range of events geared around networking and mentorship designed to help them expand their contacts and advance their work. The Career Conversations sessions, informal networking and discussion sessions, aim to get young scientist engaging with more senior members of the community, while the Meet the Research Icon sessions provide all attendees with a chance to meet and speak with world-renowned experts including pancreatic cancer specialist Frank McCormick, and next-gen sequencing expert Elaine Mardis.

For a different take on networking, attendees can take part in the brand new AACR Annual Meeting 5K Run/Walk (Saturday, April 16) to both meet fellow athletic researchers and raise awareness and funds for cancer research. There will be prizes for top fundraising and team efforts!

Finally, there is nothing more frustrating that coming to the end of an event and realising that you missed that all-important session. But luckily AACR has those frustrated delegates covered. Following on from a successful launch at last year’s Meeting, Scott recommends making time for the Wrap-Up Plenary Session (Wednesday, April 20). “The closing plenary will have talks that summarize the meeting which can be helpful and exciting,” he explains. Chaired by Scott himself, the wrap up will explore the major highlights from the annual meeting, from basic research through to translational and clinical applications.

So there you have it, a look at what to get excited about in New Orleans! An enormous amount of energy goes in to making the AACR Annual Meeting a crucial and valuable experience for delegates. So make sure to join the discussions, engage with the community, and maybe even get your running shoes on! You can find more information on the AACR website (www.aacr.org), download the conference app to make a detailed plan for your time, and follow all the Annual Meeting action on Twitter using the hashtag #AACR16.