International Conference of Anticancer Research, Kos, Greece, 17th-23rd October 2008

3 Nov 2008

The eighth International Conference of Anticancer Research was held on the beautiful Greek island of Kos from October 17th – 23rd, 2008. This conference series is organised under the auspices of the International Institute of Anticancer Research (IIAR), also based in Greece.

The meetings have grown steadily since the first conference in 1985; well over a thousand oncologists and basic cancer researchers took part, and over seven hundred papers and posters were presented. Every continent was represented except Antarctica, with a noticeably high proportion of delegates from emerging economic regions, particularly eastern Europe and Asia.

The conference covered topics from basic research on the molecular and cell biology of tumourigenesis, through novel therapeutic developments to purely clinical sessions. Several smaller specialist cancer societies supported the conference by holding their own meetings at the same time and opening them out to all participants. These included the International Cancer Microenvironment Society, the North-East German Society of Gynaecological Oncology (NOGGO) which has members from far outside its original base, and the Hungarian Society for Epidemiology, reflecting some of the conference’s wide appeal. NOGGO presented an interesting session on the management of ovarian cancer, with Sven Mahner from Hamburg stressing that the case for routine use of the only well characterised ovarian cancer marker, CA-125, in following up patients in remission has not yet been made.

With so many talks to fit in, it was inevitable that the programme had to be arranged in multiple parallel sessions. There were usually four or five talks taking place at any time, so it was not possible to take on board more than a fraction of the science on offer and many of the sessions were attended only by a relatively small group of specialists. It was interesting to see which topics attracted the attention of the wider research community.

Two sessions on the role of vitamin D in cancer chemoprevention were particularly well attended. This is a controversial topic, as the production of vitamin D in the skin requires ultraviolet light, and the link between excessive exposure to UV and melanoma is very well known. Two papers by members of Johan Moan’s group in the Norwegian Radiation Hospital, Oslo, Norway showed epidemiological evidence of cancer prognosis being affected by season of diagnosis (with advantage coming from diagnosis in the summer months) but not by latitude, thus pointing to a net benefit from sensible exposure to UV rays.

My own research discipline of immunobiology was well covered. Several groups presented results of immunotherapy trials, highlighting both the promise and the remaining problems inherent in this approach. Dagmar Marx from the Institute for Tumour Therapy, Duderstadt, Germany presented interesting, but typically variable, results of trials of a dendritic cell based therapy for solid tumours, showing a correlation between the ratio of key cytokines and antitumour response. In one of a number of attractive talks in this area from eastern European scientists, Dainius Characiejus from the Institute of Oncology, Vilnius, Lithuania, described using tumour immunological parameters, including the levels of particular T-cell subsets, as predictors of response to interferon alpha. Metastatic melanoma is particularly difficult to treat with conventional chemotherapy, but can respond to immunotherapy; Arkadiusz Dudek from the University of Minnesota described some promising results from a Phase II trial of a vaccine composed of “artificial cells” bearing tumour-specific antigens in the most advanced, Phase IV melanomas.

All the Anticancer Research conferences have been held on Greek islands, but this was the first to take place on the island of Kos. In retrospect, this is rather surprising, as Kos – the home of Hippocrates – is a particularly fitting place for medical conferences. Delegates flocked to hear a lecture by Christos Yapijakis, from the University of Athens Medical School, on the life and thought of Hippocrates and of the much less well known Asclepiades, who lived three centuries later, in the second century before Christ. His ideas were astonishingly modern; taking up the atomic theory first proposed by the philosopher Democritus. He suggested that the human body was composed of “corpuscles” – basically, molecules – and that changes in their form or position cause disease. He can therefore justly be described as proposing ideas of “molecular medicine” that have come into prominence only in recent decades. Delegates attending sessions on cancer molecular biology and novel anti-cancer drug targets will probably have been unaware that their discipline can be traced back more than two millennia.

For most of those two millennia, a professional with an interest in cancer was able to understand most of what was then known about both the science and the treatment of the disease. Now, however, we are all specialists in smaller and smaller sub-disciplines of a rapidly burgeoning field. Wide-ranging conferences such as this one are ideal opportunities for cross-fertilisation between basic and clinical cancer research, if researchers are only willing to cross those boundaries.