The European Cancer Congress 2015, or ECCO as everyone calls it, is Europe’s largest platform for collaboration in oncology research.
The conference, which runs every two years, has just closed its doors after five packed days of lectures, talks and symposiums.
It’s a big event – nearly 18,000 cancer researchers, doctors and all sorts of other related professionals from across the world came together to talk about cancer diagnosis, treatment and prevention – among them a healthy battalion of researchers from The Institute of Cancer Research.
So what were the main themes of the conference, and what areas of research are poised to be the next big things in cancer treatment?
Collaborations are now the driving force behind much scientific progress, and in acknowledgement of this the over-arching theme of the conference was ‘reinforcing multidisciplinarity’.
The ICR’s Professor John Yarnold emphasised the importance of multidisciplinary team working in his editorial in the ECCO conference newspaper, and how it is a defining feature of the research carried out here at the ICR.
Professor Yarnold highlighted examples of changes taken by the ICR to encourage team science, including criteria for appraisal and promotion that seek to actively recognise those involved in collaborative research.
This commitment to team science was emphasised throughout the conference, with integrated sessions for overlapping disciplines to encourage dialogue between basic and translational research.
Scientific symposia focused on new developments in research and treatment that could have an impact on future cancer diagnosis and care, while clinically orientated tumour board sessions emulated real world multidisciplinary teams, supported by case studies, to offer new practical insights.
Professor Johann de Bono a leading prostate cancer expert at the ICR, led a multidisciplinary satellite session on prostate cancer, including interactive elements to explore decision making around patient treatment and care. The audience was asked to vote on the most appropriate treatment for case studies of patients with prostate cancer, illustrating how treatment varies regionally.
The session concluded with how emerging molecular data is helping to categorise prostate cancer patients. Professor de Bono highlighted research by the ICR and colleagues internationally which has drawn up a comprehensive genetic map of the mutations in prostate cancers that have spread around the body.
One of the big scientific themes at the conference was the potential for immunotherapy to drive real benefits for cancer patients. Sessions focused on the application of immunotherapy in a variety of cancers including melanoma, lung cancer and gastrointestinal cancers.
One of the big talking points was checkpoint inhibitor monoclonal antibodies – antibody-mimicking compounds that target cancer cells to produce an immune reaction.
Several large-scale clinical trials testing these monoclonal antibodies were presented at ECCO, including results of a trial for a new checkpoint inhibitor called nivolumab for aggressive kidney cancer, which received widespread media coverage in the UK.
The study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and co-authored by Dr James Larkin, a consultant at The Royal Marsden and Reader at the ICR, tested nivolumab in patients with advanced kidney cancer.
In 821 kidney cancer patients, nivolumab prolonged average survival times by an average of six months, compared with standard treatment.
The ICR’s Professor Kevin Harrington told a packed session about his research combining radiotherapy and immunotherapy as a novel treatment strategy.
Previous research by Professor Harrington has shown that a genetically modified virus called T-VEC can kill skin cancer cells and trigger the immune system to attack tumours. Radiotherapy can also produce an anti-tumour immune response in patients, so combining immunotherapy like T-VEC with radiotherapy could significantly boost treatment outcomes for patients.
The conference also delved beyond science into the policy issues that affect cancer research, with sessions discussing clinical trials and cancer regulation.
Dr Eva Sharpe, Science Information and Policy Manager at the ICR, deputised for our Chief Executive Professor Paul Workman at the Oncopolicy Forum, a session dedicated to debating cancer policies at the EU level.
Dr Sharpe gave a talk on “Affordability of innovative cancer medicine: A research perspective”, which focused on the importance of taking risks to develop novel approaches to cancer treatment.
She highlighted some of the ways we could encourage companies and academic institutions to become less risk adverse in delivering affordable innovation – including streamlining clinical trials to cut costs, and ensuring drugs are licensed and approved for use on the NHS at an earlier stage than currently.
Dr Timothy Yap, a clinician scientist at the ICR and a consultant at The Royal Marsden, took part in a spirited debate on drug development policy, about whether drugs used in combination treatments should have to show effectiveness on their own before they could gain a licence.
This is just a brief snapshot of the many and varied offerings during the five days of ECCO. But it gives a taste of the cutting-edge science on show that promises to transform cancer care in the future, and the challenges that researchers must overcome when trying to bring the latest innovations to patients.
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