Comment: NCRI 2014 conference – Highlights and the future

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Published: 10 Nov 2014
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Prof Richard Marais - Director of the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, Manchester, UK

Prof Marais talks to ecancertv at NCRI 2014 about the highlights of this year's conference and what the future may hold.

I think what’s great about the NCRI meeting is that it’s the breadth but also, at the same time, the depth of the meeting. So we’ve had fantastic talks, all the way from behavioural science into how patients respond to the news of melanoma and how they adapt that into their life, all the way through the basic translational and then into the clinical research.

So highlighting a particular thing would be very difficult. What’s been wonderful is the high quality of all of the talks and that’s the plenary talks, the proffered paper talks, the parallel sessions have all been fantastic and I think what’s great is that there really is something for everybody here. As it was the tenth anniversary of these meetings we wanted to have a series of celebration meetings which really were not just looking back to where we’ve come from but looking forward and trying to project what the next ten years might look like. I think those have been really wonderful fun because they’ve given people freedom to really talk about the things that they care about.

What happened in those ten years?

There are lots of different areas: we had a talk about metabolomics, we had talks about drug discovery, we had talks about cancer policy, talks about localised therapy, so radiation and surgery. All of those, of course, bring different things to the table. Again, it’s difficult to be very specific; the areas we chose were really chosen to be instructive for younger people to think about where cancer research might be in ten years, perhaps when they’re starting their own labs. Then the question is is it surgery you’re worried about? And there are some absolutely wonderful new techniques in surgery that are coming up where you combine fluorescent light with visible light so that the surgeon can actually in real time see where the tumour is. Of course this is going to increase the accuracy of the surgical techniques. We had discussions about the importance of metabolomics, an area of increasing importance, we now understand, in cancer, and whether we could therapeutically target this. What does it mean to patients? How can you affect patients’ disease by changing their diet – very interesting and exciting areas. Then of course drug discovery. We’ve had many years of drug discovery, where are we going to go next to get the next generation of drugs? Is it more of the same or do we need to become more sophisticated? I think there we understand that we have to become more sophisticated.

Why is it important for the meeting to cover a broad range of topics?

Cancer is a complex disease, treatment is complex, the treatments are very, very complex. Increasingly we’re accepting that the way to tackle cancer is through multidisciplinary teams. It’s not just about single people working in single fields, you need to have many people working across the whole spectrum all the way, as I’ve already said, from the basic to the clinical through the translational space. But then also how do patients respond to this? So we need to understand more than just one little piece of biochemistry or one little piece of response or what is the mechanism of resistance. We need to understand the much bigger picture and so having that breadth allows us to have the discussion and perhaps a biochemist sitting listening to psychosocial aspects of cancer will be better able to understand what the patient experience might be, what the clinical experience might be. It’s really about allowing people to understand different aspects of cancer so that they can accommodate that thinking and then really focus the questions they’re asking to provide a better response, better outcome for the patients.

What stood out to you at this meeting?

One of the areas which is clearly going to become increasingly important moving forward is the whole area of metabolomics. We had two wonderful talks, one from Lew Cantley and the other one from Karen Vousden, about the issues of how a cell uses its energy sources and how the body uses its energy sources and then how cancer cells learn how to benefit, not only benefit from that but then also manipulate those processes to their own benefit. What we’re starting to see is that these metabolism pathways are actually not just the thing that keeps the cells going but they also present us with therapeutic opportunities. So, moving forward, it will be very exciting to see how that plays out.