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The NCRI conference - what we have learned

Posted on 08 November, 2013 by evasharpe
It was a busy week of cancer research at the NCRI conference, with scientists and clinicians discussing a broad range of topics from genetic epidemiology to radiotherapy dosing. I thought I’d spend some time picking out the key things we’ve learned from the vibrant, and at times contentious, discussion.

Tumour heterogeneity is key to how cancers respond to treatment

Cancers genetically evolve during the course of their development, resulting in a startling amount of genetic diversity (heterogeneity) even within one patient’s tumour. One of the take-home messages from the conference – set out in a session chaired by the ICR’s Professor Mel Greaves - was the importance of this heterogeneity in prognosis and treatment. The most genetically diverse tumours have the worst outcomes for patients, and can pose a huge challenge for treating patients as it means tumours are more likely to become resistant to treatments.

Personalised medicine must meet the heterogeneity challenge

Genetically diverse, evolving tumours present a real challenge for the development of personalised medicines. Potential approaches could include targeting ‘trunk’ or ‘founder’ mutations arising early in a cancer’s development, or shutting off routes to drug resistance through use of combination treatments. We now have better understanding of the impact tumour heterogeneity has on the development of personalised therapies and a debate on this topic had the audience buzzing. In the debate, the panel discussed recent successes in personalised medicines and the challenges this strategy faces, and there was agreement that other approaches, that do not involve genetically targeting tumours, will also be important.

There is growing excitement around immunotherapy for cancer

The conference was full of discussion about research into immunotherapy for cancer. Talks discussed the fact that tumours are made up not only of cancer cells, but also of immune cells such as white blood cells, which play an important role in the cancer’s development. Several researchers presented studies showing that targeting the immune cells could slow tumour growth. This looks to be an exciting new area for cancer research and The Royal Marsden’s Dr James Larkin labelled it one of the biggest priorities for future research funding.

Cancer predisposition genes are starting to come into their own

Another key topic was the role of cancer predisposition genes in clinical practice and diagnostics. Professor Doug Easton described his work on breast cancer susceptibility genes and how risk prediction could be applied to cancer prevention. He spoke of how assessments of genetic risk could be combined with other factors such as breast density to give more accurate predictions. The ICR’s Dr Clare Turnbull gave a detailed overview of how we can apply this knowledge to clinical practice, and the conference concluded with an eloquent overview from Professor Naz Rahman on the history of research into cancer predisposition genes, bringing us up to date with some of the recent advances made in her lab.

There are some really inspirational people working in cancer research!

I was really blown away by both the research highlighted throughout the conference, and also the passion and dedication shown by the researchers. Several members of staff highlighted the talk from Professor Steve West of the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute, whose talk on DNA damage was delivered with such passion as he guided us through the field right from the basics. Dr Sean Morisson of Hertzberg Palliative Care Institute also made an impression on conference goers, with his compelling talk on palliative care and the importance of assessing ‘value’ in more than its monetary sense, by looking at patient and family concerns and how these may be best met.

And finally it was great to see so many ICR colleagues receiving prizes at the conference!

This is the end of our conference posts from the 2013 NCRI conference. We hope you’ve enjoyed them, and in case you missed any, posts from previous days at the conference can be found below.

How chemistry and biology work together to make drugs
A write-up of an educational workshop from Dr Michelle Garrett and Professor Ian Collins

Targeting the epigenome
Key messages from a session chaired by Professor Bob Brown on the potential of cancer treatments targeting the epigenome

Tackling the rarer causes of breast cancer
A report on a presentation by Dr Nicholas Turner on the challenge of driving up survival rates for triple-negative breast cancers

Thanks to Dr Barbara Pittam, Director of Academic Services; Henry French, Senior Media Officer; Dr Amy Moore, Researcher Development Advisor; Richard Hoey, Director of Communications; and Angela Wilks, Contracts Manager, for sharing their conference highlights.
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