National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
July 10, 2012 • Volume 9 / Number 14

Community Update

A Meeting of Minds: Young Oncologists Make the Most of the ASCO Annual Meeting

Photo of the Trainees and Junior Faculty Member Lounge at the American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting (Photo by © ASCO/Scott Morgan 2012)Attendees gathered in the Trainees and Junior Faculty Member Lounge at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting. (Photo by © ASCO/Scott Morgan 2012)

Much of the cutting-edge research discussed each year at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting is presented by researchers just launching their careers.

Most display their work in one of the many poster sessions, while a select few give formal oral presentations. Either way, the meeting gives these young physician-scientists an opportunity to discuss and defend their data in one of the largest international forums for cancer research.

But navigating a meeting of roughly 31,000 oncology professionals and making the most of the experience can be a challenge.

"It's a huge conference, and no matter how much homework you do beforehand, it can be very overwhelming," said Dr. Ayca Gucalp, a third-year fellow in the Breast Cancer Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), who was attending ASCO for the second time. "Last year it was about learning [my way around], taking it all in, and meeting many of the investigators whose manuscripts I had read."

"It's just immense," agreed Dr. James Harding, a hematology and oncology fellow studying melanoma at MSKCC and a first-time ASCO attendee. "There are so many very established people here and a lot of interesting research happening. It's kind of hard to know where to go, but it's been exciting."

Those who have attended ASCO annual meetings before tend to arrive with a plan.  

The first time he attended the ASCO meeting, Dr. Andrew Weickhardt, a clinical fellow who studies lung cancer at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, said he attended only the oral presentations.

"The next time I realized that the poster sessions were really useful for meeting people and talking dynamically about research," the Australian native continued. "This time, I've found that some of the education sessions and the clinical science symposia, which I previously had ignored, were quite good in getting a bit more depth in some areas."

A Focus on Research

For this next generation of cancer investigators, attending the ASCO meeting is first and foremost about sharing their findings and discovering which new ideas are advancing their fields.

Attendees navigate the American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting. (Photo by © ASCO/Scott Morgan 2012) More than 31,000 people from more than 100 countries attended the 2012 ASCO annual meeting. (Photo by © ASCO/Scott Morgan 2012)

Although researchers may get a hint of which larger studies will be presented before the meeting from promotional material and press releases, the poster and oral abstract sessions can provide some surprises. Dr. Gucalp was pleased to see the five or so abstracts with a similar theme to her own work on the role of the androgen receptor signaling pathway in breast cancer development, which she discussed in an oral presentation.

"There's an excitement brewing about androgen receptor signaling in breast cancer, and so you feel like you're on the right track," she commented. "With the prostate cancer field having so many agents already available, there are numerous options available for investigation in breast cancer."

Presenting their work at an event the size of the ASCO annual meeting is also a good way for young researchers to get critical feedback on their data from experts.

Dr. Benjamin Maughan, a resident at the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute and a recipient of a Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO Merit Award, presented a poster on alternative endpoints for clinical trials involving patients with urothelial carcinoma and found the process to be useful. "[The poster session] turned out really well," he wrote in an e-mail after the meeting. "I had quite a few meaningful discussions about this project and good feedback."

Face Time

But the ASCO meeting is about more than merely taking in the details of the latest clinical studies.

"The immediate importance of a lot of what is presented here can be grasped by reading an abstract book or looking at a virtual meeting; you can do that sitting in Australia or Uzbekistan," said Dr. Weickhardt. "What is important, I think, is actually meeting the people who do the research."

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NCI ranked 13th on The Scientists' 2012 Best Places to Work for postdocs. Career development opportunities are one of the institute's strengths, according to the journal's 2012 survey. For information about training opportunities at NCI, visit the Center for Cancer Training website.

"The meeting has been a great opportunity to interact with other colleagues and to meet trainees from other centers," agreed Dr. Irene Brana of Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, who received a Young Investigator Award from the Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO for her research on biomarkers of response or resistance to combinations of targeted therapies in mice.

"I get to spend some time meeting the people that I've collaborated with," Dr. Gucalp said. "Sometimes they're in different countries, and this is the only common ground that we have to meet." She continued, "I've even further developed relationships [with people] in my own department. We're always so busy while we're at work, and this [meeting gives us] time to develop and talk about ideas."

The meeting also provides opportunities for fellows to learn about career options after training.

"I have gotten a lot from the career development modules," said Dr. Harding. "In one, they put together a panel of various practitioners: academics, community practitioners, and pharmaceutical representatives. To hear their stories, how they chose their paths, how they found mentors, and why they picked [the careers] they did, I think, is very important for someone at my level."

Although no events at the meeting were organized specifically for medical residents, Dr. Maughan was able to meet a number of fellows and program directors of institutions where he planned to apply for fellowships.

The ASCO Influence

Many of these young researchers identified their interest in oncology early on, while in medical school, and most plan to continue on the academic career path.

"I like the academic environment," said Dr. Harding, who also received a Young Investigator Award from the Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO. "As you can see from being at this meeting, [academia] is very stimulating and everyone has so many ideas; there's so much discussion."

ASCO sessions can even influence the research focus of an academic career.

Dr. Maughan originally was interested in pursuing gene therapy in advanced cancer patients. After attending a series of talks on clinical trial design to identify the best setting for a targeted breast cancer therapy, however, he decided that "clearly the best chance for a meaningful impact is in early therapy instead of late-term salvage therapy. It makes me rethink my approach to oncology research regarding gene therapy techniques."

Deciding where to start their independent careers is a critical aspect of their research success. Dr. Gucalp has accepted a faculty position at MSKCC and will continue developing some of the projects she started as a fellow, whereas Dr. Weickhardt is weighing a return to Australia.

Jennifer Crawford