Brian Wolpin, MD, director of the gastrointestinal cancer center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, opened the 2019 American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) special conference on pancreatic cancer with some moving patient stories.
The conference co-chair described two patients, both women in their mid-60s, whom he treated for pancreatic cancer. The first was diagnosed with locally-advanced disease, but after chemotherapy, she became a candidate for surgery.
She is now a six-year pancreatic cancer survivor.
The second patient was diagnosed with less advanced disease and was an immediate candidate for surgery. And yet, four months after the procedure, she returned to the clinic with tumors that had spread to her liver and lungs. She died shortly thereafter.
Wolpin used these stories as a stark reminder to the audience – composed of more than 500 researchers, clinicians, advocates and survivors – that while progress is being made, we still have a long way to go.
“The overarching goal of the pancreatic cancer biomedical research community is to better detect and treat the disease based upon rigorous scientific and clinical evidence,” said Lynn Matrisian, PhD, MBA, chief science officer of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN).
“The survival rate has crept up over recent years, but the statistics are still poor for this disease. AACR’s pancreatic cancer conference is an opportunity for experts in the field to come together to discuss new approaches to improve patient outcomes.”
The meeting, which took place Sept. 6-9 in Boston, marked the first time this special conference happened on an annual basis. Previously, the meeting occurred every other year, starting in 2012. For all instances of the meeting, PanCAN has served as a proud co-lead supporter, along with the Lustgarten Foundation.
Following Wolpin’s remarks, representatives from both lead supporter organizations addressed the audience. Julie Fleshman, JD, MBA, PanCAN’s president and CEO, spoke about the progress that’s been made over the organization’s 20-year history.
“A meeting like this focused just on pancreatic cancer was unimaginable 20 years ago,” she said, “and just look at the topics over the next three days. These are topics we didn’t even know to discuss back then.”
Fleshman also shared her own experience with breast cancer, preventing her from attending this conference last year. “I was lucky,” Fleshman said. “It was diagnosed early because there was an early detection test. I was given multiple treatment options that would all lead to a good outcome.
“This experience gave me such immense gratitude for the breast cancer advocates and researchers who came before me and paved the way for my positive breast cancer experience.”
— PanCAN (@PanCAN) September 8, 2019
She added, “I can imagine the day when a patient is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer early because there is an early detection test, and the patient is given treatment options, which lead to a positive outcome. I believe that day is within our lifetime.
“I believe that day will be possible because of the people in this room.”
The meeting then launched into the science – featuring three keynote lectures, eight plenary sessions and three poster sessions, representing nearly 200 abstracts submitted by researchers and their trainees from around the world.
“You could barely walk through the aisles during the poster sessions,” Matrisian said. “There were wall-to-wall people, discussing their work, sharing ideas and offering guidance and mentorship to their fellow researchers.”
The eight plenary sessions covered topics ranging from immunology and tumor metabolism to genomics and early detection.
The diverse topics discussed and complexity of presentations served as a reminder of how much the field now knows about the key biological features of pancreatic tumors.
“The session devoted to the tumor microenvironment was a great example of how deep our understanding has become,” Matrisian said. “We used to think of the microenvironment, a dense and complex mix of cells in and around the tumor, as simply a physical barrier to drug delivery.
“But now we realize the various types of cells present in the microenvironment all play a distinct role – mostly to support and sustain the cancer cells through access to nutrients, hiding from an immune attack and more.”
A recurring theme throughout the meeting was describing ways to therapeutically target both the unique features of the cancer cells themselves as well as the cells that are part of the tumor’s microenvironment.
“The concept of precision medicine takes on new meaning when it’s not just addressing the mutations and molecular changes present in the tumor cells, but also aiming to weaken the infrastructure built around the tumor,” Matrisian said.
#AACRPanCa19 was TERRIFIC!! Thanks to @AACR @PanCAN @lustgartenfdn and the organizers. Really glad to hear it’s an annual event now (#AACRPanCa20 Is in Philadelphia) because there are a LOT of researchers in the audience who would love to get a chance to showcase their work.
— Anirban Maitra (@Aiims1742) September 9, 2019
A panel of researchers also discussed early-stage clinical trials being designed and implemented. The treatment strategies included immunotherapy, epigenetics (targeting the process by which genes get expressed in the cells) and the cells’ inability to repair DNA damage.
The conference wrapped up with some remarks by co-chair Dafna Bar-Sagi, PhD, senior vice president and vice dean for science at Perlmutter Cancer Center/NYU Langone Health, and PanCAN research grant recipient and Scientific and Medical Advisory Board member.
Bar-Sagi commented that the team of co-chairs was a bit nervous about moving the meeting to an annual basis, wondering if there’d be enough interest and enough new science to sustain the event every year. She said, “But there was a lot of new stuff – including a lot we couldn’t even incorporate into the program!”
Bar-Sagi also referred back to Wolpin’s opening stories and how a number of advancements shared over the course of the meeting provide real hope to patients and their families.
“The AACR pancreatic cancer conference leaves its attendees feeling reinvigorated and motivated to return to their labs and clinics to keep devising innovative ways to better diagnose and treat the disease,” Matrisian said.
“And I’ll echo Julie’s remarks to the attendees: ‘Thank you for what you do for patients. We are here to walk side by side with you. Let’s keep at it and never lose our sense of urgency!’”