AACR Virtual Annual Meeting II: Opening Ceremony Sets Focus on Science, Policy

The Opening Ceremony of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Virtual Annual Meeting II provided a stark reminder that while the entire world takes aim at the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer remains a relentless foe, requiring a resolute focus of its own. 

“The AACR has always been a multidisciplinary cancer research organization, spanning the breadth of the field, and while we are putting our efforts into tackling COVID-19, we know that cancer has not disappeared as a major public health challenge,” said Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), chief executive officer of the AACR. 

Behind the scenes: AACR Chief Executive Officer Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc) delivers remarks during the Opening Ceremony of AACR Virtual Meeting II, taking place June 22-24. Photo by Rick Buck.

“The grim reality is that more than 1.8 million people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in the United States this year, and worldwide, the number of new cases is anticipated to be about 18 million. That is why, during the COVID-19 crisis, the AACR remains steadfast in its commitment to keep a laser-like focus on the patients and communities we serve,” Foti said.

Following the highly successful Virtual Annual Meeting I by about two months, the second phase of the Annual Meeting is taking place Monday through Wednesday, June 22 to 24. Virtual Annual Meeting II will feature a robust scientific program, including an early-phase clinical trials plenary, a Presidential Select Symposium on precision pediatric cancer medicine, two special sessions on COVID-19, 23 minisymposia featuring high-quality proffered papers, and 4,000 posters, all presented in a virtual format. 

In this phase of the meeting, science policy also takes center stage. On Monday morning, a trio of U.S. leaders provided remarks for the Opening Ceremony, highlighting the important partnership between the cancer research community and U.S. policymakers. 

“Cancer is a thief”

Virtual Annual Meeting II is taking place amid a renewed focus on persistent inequalities and discrimination in many facets of American life. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-California), Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, provided opening remarks that acknowledged that these inequalities take a toll on patients with cancer. 

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

“Cancer is a thief that knows no race, gender, age, or socioeconomic condition. But equal access to care and cutting-edge treatments that can mean the difference between life and death has been denied to too many Americans for far too long, especially in communities of color,” Pelosi said.

On Tuesday, the meeting will feature a panel of experts from academia, government, industry, and the patient advocacy community to discuss racism and social injustices, including inequality in all areas of cancer research and treatment. The panel will discuss ways to achieve social justice and equality for all regardless of skin color, eliminate cancer health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities by increasing minority representation in clinical trials, and ensure diversity in the cancer work force. 

Pelosi applauded these efforts. “Thankfully, AACR’s brilliant leaders and researchers are harnessing their expertise to not only deliver progress in the fight against cancer, but also shine a bright light on inequalities in health care and research that persist to this day.” 

Strong partnerships fuel funding, fellowship opportunities

AACR advocacy efforts play a large role in maintaining strong federal funding of cancer research, said Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Blunt has chaired that committee for five years, during which funding for the National Institutes of Health has increased by almost $12 billion.

U.S. Senator Roy Blunt

Blunt, who has survived cancer himself, discussed how some of the scientific breakthroughs that are saving lives today—such as immunotherapy—happened despite meager funding for cancer research. The more robust funding of the past few years must continue if we are to accelerate the pace of progress, he said. 

“There’s a lot of excitement in the cancer community right now,” he said. “We want to be sure we are constantly moving forward, not to what we know about now, but what we need to know about.”

Toward that end, the AACR is about to embark upon a new initiative with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Richard Pazdur, MD, director of the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence, announced the creation of the FDA-AACR Oncology Educational Fellowship, which will provide training in oncology drug development and regulatory policy to early-career scientists. 

Pazdur also noted that while COVID-19 is the subject of intense research, oncology drug development and approvals are continuing. 

“Our work in oncology hasn’t slowed during the pandemic,” he said, noting that from March to May, the FDA approved eight new molecular entities and 23 new uses for existing cancer therapeutics.

Turning over the reins

Each year, the AACR Annual Meeting marks the transition from one AACR President to the next. On Monday, Foti expressed gratitude toward Elaine Mardis, PhD, FAACR, who served as AACR President for the 2019-2020 term. The COVID-19 pandemic added an unanticipated challenge to a year of outstanding leadership, and Mardis navigated the challenge with great success, Foti said, noting, “The legacy of her presidency is extraordinary.” 

Mardis and her successor, Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, FAACR, worked closely together to help reshape the Annual Meeting from its original format to the two-part virtual model. 

“On a short timeline, we were determined to do what it took to deliver high-quality scientific research to the cancer community,” Mardis said. Their collaborative spirit symbolizes this Annual Meeting, which may look different than in previous years, but remains a premier venue for sharing the most important work in the fight against cancer. 

Ribas then launched the Opening Plenary of the meeting, featuring the theme “Turning Science into Lifesaving Care.” He said the Annual Meeting plays a crucial role in the dissemination of cutting-edge research. 

“It is vital in order to enhance communication of scientific breakthroughs among researchers around the world, foster collaboration, spark innovative new projects, and drive progress for the benefit of cancer patients,” Ribas said. 

We’ll be covering the Annual Meeting extensively this week. Please keep reading, and follow the meeting on Twitter via #AACR20.