Issue 7 – June 2012
Using Genomics to Accelerate Science into the Clinic: Reflections on the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2012
Jaime M. Guidry Auvil, Ph.D.
April Fools’ Day ironically found me among some of the most brilliant minds in cancer research and medicine while attending the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2012 in beautiful downtown Chicago. The theme of this year’s gathering was “Accelerating Science: Concept to Clinic” with a special focus on the integration of basic, clinical and translational research that is driving discovery in the oncology field. For those unfamiliar with the AACR conference, roughly 16,000 investigators across a wide variety of disciplines in academia, government and industry come together to network and learn from their colleagues. Advances from all spectrums of cancer research are highlighted through daily plenary sessions, major and mini-symposia, forums, educational sessions, methods workshops, and poster sessions.
I attended the AACR conference primarily to chair and speak at an “NCI/NIH-sponsored” session on one of the Office of Cancer Genomics’ (OCG) pediatric cancer initiatives, Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments (TARGET). These sessions are endorsed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and serve to provide conference attendees with information on a variety of topics that are central to the mission of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and NIH as a whole. TARGET is a comprehensive molecular characterization initiative to identify genes that drive the development and progression of the most prevalent childhood cancers. Further, TARGET seeks to rapidly advance those discoveries toward targeted therapies in the clinic. The TARGET session at the AACR Annual Meeting served to both inform investigators about the genomic data this ground-breaking initiative is producing as well as how to access it through NIH databases.
The TARGET session began with a general overview of the initiative, its history and goals, followed by individual project team reviews. Team leaders representing each of the 5 major disease groups studied in TARGET provided a description of their project, the progress made to date, challenges resolved and the lessons learned, as well as ongoing and future data generation and analysis. A detailed outline of the mechanics to access TARGET genomics data stored in NCI and NCBI databases was presented for the research community. The session concluded with presentations describing specific protocols for obtaining these datasets, their location, and the process of applying for access to protected data.
In attending other symposia at the AACR conference, one recurrent theme was that successful cancer treatment requires targeting of multiple drivers within a tumor. Cancer is a disease of the genome; therefore understanding the genetic basis of an individual tumor, the principal goal of OCG initiatives, is essential to the formulation of treatments that can be tailored to an individual and translated to improved patient outcomes. Identifying drivers in molecular pathways within a tumor is a critical step to finding better treatments for cancer. By mapping significant driver mutations in various tumor types, genomics research efforts like those of TARGET and other OCG initiatives are laying the groundwork for the development of enhanced cancer therapies.
The wealth of ground-breaking and inspirational findings presented at the AACR Annual Meeting 2012 allowed me to reflect on the importance of genomics in cancer research, various aspects of which are highlighted in this issue (#7) of the OCG e-News. There are several articles relating specifically to TARGET research projects: an interview with Dr. Peter Adamson (the Chair of the Children’s Oncology Group; COG) about current issues in pediatric cancer research; a discussion by TARGET investigator, Dr. Paul Meltzer, on how genomics research will help reveal the underlying biology of sarcomas and provide an approach to new therapeutic strategies; and an informative review by TARGET investigator, Dr. Richard Harvey, on the discovery of molecular signatures as the most effective means of diagnosing a difficult-to-treat subtype of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Also in this issue are two inaugural articles, each launching a new educational series for the OCG e-News. One piece discusses the concepts of targeted cancer therapies, the first in a collection of articles that seeks to educate a broader audience on various aspects of cancer genomics research. The second is largely directed towards researchers and presents a brief history of the UCSC Cancer Genome Browser before surveying some of its many useful features. It is part of a specialized e-News series that will explore an array of the freely available web tools designed to visualize, analyze, and integrate various cancer genomics data.
As highlighted in the e-News, OCG initiatives and the collaborators driving them are using genomics research to better define cancer at a molecular level, ultimately contributing to more effective clinical treatments. Attending the AACR conference helped reinforce a key role of large-scale genomics efforts like TARGET in the future of cancer research: the fact that once all tumor types have been sequenced and significant mutations mapped across critical pathways, then therapeutic targeting using existing and/or novel drugs can be properly implemented. I have returned to Bethesda from the Windy City energized and ready to contribute to the OCG mission of improving cancer care.