Highlights of the EORTC-NCI-AACR Symposium

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Published: 2 Dec 2014
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Prof Gordon McVie - ecancer and European Institute of Oncology, Milan, Italy

Prof Gordon McVie of ecancer summarises the highlights of the 26th EORTC-NCI-AACR Symposium and places them in context. One of the founders of these meetings, he considers the Symposium's history and suggests its future.

I’m Gordon McVie from ecancer and I’m reporting on the plenary session of a very exciting meeting in Barcelona. This is the 26th meeting of the EORTC, the National Cancer Institute of the United States and the AACR, that’s the American Association for Cancer Research. I’m feeling my age because I was one of the founders of the first of these meetings in the late 1980s.

I was speaking on EURECA and launching the EURECA project, it’s an FP7 project, on reusing clinical data and getting hospital data, data that we have everywhere more accessible for asking new clinical research questions. I went through the problems of setting up this sort of really critical project funded by the European Commission, things like data sharing, moving data from one hospital to another, massively difficult in some countries and the legal issues get in the way of the science too often. There are security issues, obviously, and a lot of hospitals distrust data warehouses. There are very few but there are one or two issues surrounding intellectual property. The big issue is data protection and for Europe, of course, half of the 2,000 people at this meeting in Barcelona are not from Europe so this was not important for them but for the Europeans it certainly is important because the European Parliament have passed an act which will kill data sharing and retrospective studies with tissue from biobanks and future studies which are not specifically laid out in an informed consent form which the patient signs. I urge you, if you’re listening to this in Europe, to lobby your MEP and your MPs to get this changed. There is still time to change the legislation. It really could be devastating; it could be the end of using big data in Europe and this would be a tragedy.

The plenary session was extraordinarily good. It was chaired by the Chairman of the EORTC, Roger Stupp from Zurich, co-chaired with Josep Tabernero from Vall d'Hebron here in Barcelona, so I suppose he was the host. The early clinical trials for testing new agents, of which we have a superfluity at the moment, were reviewed by Dr Bedard from Canada and he honed in on several really interesting, really exciting, novel techniques which started off being called basket techniques. The first one was done by Beppe Giaccone at the NCI and this was five different drugs from five different companies put into one trial and the determination of which of these arms, of which of these drugs you got, was based on the molecular diagnostics. That was really exciting but since then there have been a number of novel designs such as this. We’re aware of all these drugs which are waiting to be tested; we’re aware of the need, we know that patients are in a hurry, they want the latest things now. They hear about personalised medicine, they hear about genome and they hear about targeted drugs but they’re not getting them fast enough. So that was very important.

Then, addressing the issue of speed, Fabrice André from Gustave Roussy in Paris, reviewed the ways that we could move from testing one gene and one target and one drug to looking at sequences of genes and looking for other ways of arranging the data which we get out of the molecular diagnostic lab. That was most interesting and, of course, Gustave Roussy has probably one of the leading institutes of Europe to take this approach forward from the molecular diagnostic lab to the new drug testing.

After that there was a remarkably inspiring talk from Dr Deansman from Sage in the United States and he challenged the textbook idea of one gene one drug. He said that as far as he was concerned looking at supervised clusters of genes in prospective or retrospective data was not bringing up sufficiently robust models for taking drugs into trial and being more sure that we’re getting the right approach for patients. He was looking at unsupervised clustering and he ran through a number of really interesting ways which EUREKA could use of looking at the genomic data and letting the data speak for itself rather than pre-judging what might come out of it.

Then there was a very interesting talk from Dr Mardis from the MD Anderson in Texas and she reviewed the genomic discovery process in acute myeloid leukaemia, remarkably short of gene targets, interestingly enough. She raised a few questions about whether liquid biopsies, which are very trendy at the moment, would indeed offer that much more of an advantage because it hadn’t done so well in AML.

Then the last talk was from EORTC itself, from the Director-Elect, Denis Lacombe, and this was a first class talk on SPECTA. SPECTA is, as far as I’m concerned, the most exciting initiative that EORTC has embarked on in its fifty years, certainly in the 25 years since I was President. It’s a wonderful collaboration with the Sanger Centre in Cambridge looking for patterns and looking for basing trials faster, baskets of trials and a variety of really interesting innovations.  Solid, security, good data warehousing, all the best statistical techniques and it was really a first class session altogether.

So if you can’t make it this year then I recommend that you come to Munich in two years’ time for a repeat run of this excellent meeting.