The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting kicks off this weekend, in San Diego, California. The event is a whirlwind of sessions, keynotes, mini-symposia, posters and exhibitors. How does it all come together? A village of people including AACR program staff, the AACR board of directors, a program committee, and two meeting co-chairs who work together to make it all happen.

The week before the conference, GEN sat down with one of the co-chairs of the meeting, Christina Curtis, PhD, a professor of medicine, genetics and biomedical data science at Stanford University where she also serves as the director of artificial intelligence and cancer genomics and of breast cancer translational research.

Curtis shared some of the major themes that will be present at the meeting, the science and technologies that will be highlighted, and what she, personally, is most looking forward to.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

LeMieux: The AACR meeting is just a few days away. Before we pack our bags, I wanted to take moment to ask you what are some of the major themes at the meeting?

Curtis: One theme that I hope is going to cut across many of the plenary sessions, but also the major symposium and other areas, is advances in data science. This is something very near and dear to my heart, as a computational biologist and a data scientist. And we are at a juncture where we are making inroads; it is hard to talk about many aspects of cancer biology without cutting through high-dimensional data.

Of course, it’s hard to pick up a newspaper without hearing something about artificial intelligence. So, it is important to focus on where the opportunities are for AI and cancer? Where are we now? Where might we be next year and how far do we have to go?

Our opening plenary session, which is entitled “Inspiring Science Fueling Progress and Revolutionizing Care,” will highlight advances from medicinal chemistry all the way through to AI and how large-scale data sets—both in vitro and in vivo—are moving the needle in terms of mechanistic insights and biology.

We have another session on Wednesday in this genre entitled “AI at the Interface” about accelerating evidence generation as well as advancing disparities research and improving trial design. Bringing AI approaches from radiomics through to real world data, this session addresses how we can move the needle faster. Because, for many of us that have sat in this space, it feels like… what will it take to make the next big insight? And I would argue that data has been limiting for what needs to be accomplished to achieve precision oncology.

Another theme is the huge advance in spatial profiling which allows us to look at human tissue at unprecedented resolution across different scales—from the subcellular, to cellular, and up to intercellular. That is fitting given that our (AACR’s) president, Phil Greenberg, MD, professor & head of the program in immunology, translational science and therapeutics division at the Fred Hutch, has a strong focus on immunology and that remains a cross-cutting theme. But of course, to study immunology in human tissues, we really need to keep the tissue intact.

There will be a plenary session around profiling tumor ecosystems in native tissue context, and another one that zooms out even more to ask about the systems’ level changes that take place that involve not only the microenvironment and the genome, but the role of the host in the metastatic process—the most lethal aspect of cancer. And of course, you also need, in many instances, AI and machine learning tools to interpret these very rich spatial data and to integrate different modalities.

LeMieux: The spatial biology sessions are some that I am most looking forward to, myself.

Curtis: There should be a lot! I’m just excited to see how far we’ve come. For a while, people were talking about spatial’s potential and now we’re really seeing it applied. And I don’t think we’re all the way there. It’s still very early days, but you will hear about spatial across trial cohorts and looking at really clinically relevant questions using these technologies.

I’d be remiss to leave out another really important topic, which is interception and prevention. This has become a theme over past AACR meetings for the Saturday plenary session. This year there is another major symposium on this topic entitled “Discovery Science in Early Cancer Biology and Interception.” What we hope to highlight in this session is the role that understanding cancer biology plays in developing improved diagnostics and ways to intervene before we have overt malignancy. There is still very much to be done there and early detection is a hot topic, largely due to advances in profiling non-invasively,  cell free circulating nucleic acids, and so forth. But there is still an urgent need to understand that biology and we’re just in the early days of that science.

LeMieux: What have been some of the biggest advances since last year’s meeting?

Curtis: The technologies advance so quickly, you’re going to hear about new tools and multimodal methods. Also, when we think about resistance—which is a huge problem to overcome because this is where we really need to optimize therapies—I’m excited about the development of some of the tools and chemistry to allow us to go after what was once undruggable. I think that’s a shift.

I will add that it’s the fundamental advances in basic science that propel precision oncology. And without those we’re nowhere. We clearly need the clinical studies too, but we really need the basic science. And that’s where AACR is such an important meeting for the community because it brings together these different communities that look at disease from all angles. And it has the fundamental basic science, the technology development, and the population sciences—which is how we think about deploying some of these insights to the greater populace.

LeMieux: What do you think are some of biggest challenges that people will be focusing on?

Curtis: There are so many. Understanding the role of host immunity and how we overcome immune suppressive environments is critical. There will be a big focus on immunology and new ways of thinking about immunology. That’s not new, but we’ll focus on, “where do we go from here?” in terms of where our understanding is limited and what kinds of new therapies we need. One example of that is discussions around going beyond immune checkpoint inhibition to novel immunotherapy strategies.

Another mini-symposium that I am excited about is around cancer vaccines and whether they are really ready for prime time. Obviously, this is a very hot topic which has gained a lot of traction following COVID and the changes in how we think about vaccines.

There will also be, in different forums and discussions, conversations about how to leverage real world data. That is still new and obviously part of a regulatory process as we work with FDA. There are many, many players involved in this but if we really want to see all of these advances benefit patients sooner, we need a more active dialogue. What does it mean to think about biomarkers in 2024 and beyond? How do we think about that process? How do we think about adaptive biomarkers? Maybe that is pushing the needle a little bit, but AACR has never shied away from talking about the greatest challenges. And that is part of what is really exciting to me. We have a platform for experts to convene, hash it out, and challenge the status quo. It is necessary because how we study this disease has changed, how we treat it has changed. So, the system needs to change.

LeMieux: What are you most looking forward to, outside of the sessions?

Curtis: I am incredibly excited to see colleagues from all over the globe in one place. I am also really thrilled to have a lab reunion. I have many former members of my lab who will be there and many current members of my lab attending. It’s nice to get everybody together again, introduce those who haven’t met, and reflect on what they’ve accomplished.

It’s also really fun to see the trainees. The meeting can be a little bit daunting for them. I remember going to my first AACR and feeling like, “Oh my goodness, where do I even go?” So I’m really pleased that there are a lot of efforts to provide networking hubs and informal settings for trainees to interact with peers and potential mentors in the field.

I’m jazzed that people are excited and there’s so much buzz about the meeting. I’m also excited to just be a participant and get to listen to some of the great science!

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