Why a clinical research conference?
Customarily, attending a scientific conference has a way of helping one reexamine their objectives and priorities in pursuing research. Amid all the seminars, posters and talks, you can’t help but develop a real appreciation for the spirit of collaboration and the collective exchange of knowledge that such meetings foster. The case for why ECRs should attend conferences in general has been made on this blog before, so I won’t reproduce it here. However, the case for attending a clinically-oriented conference might be unfamiliar to many readers. So if you, like me, happen to be an ECR training in the basic sciences, you may be wondering—why attend such a conference?
The SABCS conference
I recently was afforded an opportunity to investigate this question. Last December, the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS) held its 39th annual meeting. This marked my first time attending a conference with a predominantly clinical focus. Although a variety of basic science presentations and posters were littered throughout, it was clearly medicine, surgery, and clinical trials that animated the conference. While SABCS offered all the familiar benefits you might expect attending any ordinary conference, I found it also offered something more: A striking and tangible reminder of why we engage in scientific research in the first place (or at least why we should).
Making inroads: basic science in the clinical arena
Witnessing basic science research arriving in the clinical realm firsthand can be an inspiring force for weary and lab-sequestered researchers. For example, consider how the work which initially unmasked the heterogeneity of breast cancer has changed its clinical management. In the past, the disease was viewed as a single, monolithic entity. Today, it is routinely categorized into one of several subtypes (the so-called “intrinsic subtypes”, i.e. luminal, HER2+, triple negative, etc). This paradigm originated in a basic science laboratory, but has long since been adopted into clinical practice. In fact, the author of the landmark study first describing the molecular profiles of breast cancer, Dr. Charles Perou, was on site and delivered a keynote address.
Another good example of basic science making headway in the clinical realm is the field of microRNA research. Once limited to molecular biology circles, SABCS featured several seminars on the topic, mostly focusing on their diagnostic potential as serum biomarkers (recent reports have found that miRNAs are present and stable within the circulation). The concept that miRNAs could be purified from a routine blood collection and used as a novel disease biomarker is an enticing concept—one which hasn’t been lost on physician-scientists.
A highlight: the moving address by Eric P. Winer, MD
For me, the highlight of SABCS was the award lecture given by Dr. Eric P. Winer, director of Breast Oncology at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. His talk overviewed just how far the field has progressed since the 1990s, summarizing the biggest advancement in a single word: heterogeneity (see Perou, above). Despite this accomplishment, he acknowledged that great challenges remain, chiefly: (1) drug resistance, (2) over-treatment, and (3) health disparities. He could have concluded here, and overall it would have been an engaging and insightful lecture. But it was what he related next that made his talk truly remarkable and underscored the impact basic science research can have on a person’s health and quality of life. Pivoting to a more personal tone, he gave a brief but intimate portrayal of his life and the astounding adversity which marked it.
His was a story of personal hardship; a childhood racked with chronic maladies worsening with age. Diagnosed with Hemophilia A as a child, his early years were typified by severe bruising events, uncontrolled bleeding, and frequent hospital visits. At the time, life expectancy was about 13 years. But then—a miracle— the 1970s brought purified clotting factor VIII to market (factor VIII is defective in Hemophilia A). Now, with periodic factor VIII transfusions, bleeding could be curbed.
As the 1980s rolled around, multiple studies appeared describing unusual and inexplicable infections in young men around the San Francisco bay area. These harbingers of the AIDS epidemic to come were accompanied by reports describing similar infections in hemophilia patients who received factor VIII transfusions. A medical resident at the time, Dr. Winer saw the studies and, prophetically, he realized: “If one of us has got it, we all do.” Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with HIV—a victim of blood products contaminated with the virus. Worse still, much of the blood supply was later found to be co-contaminated with hepatitis C virus as well, for which he was also confirmed positive.
Still a young man, he had been diagnosed with three chronic, incurable diseases. For most of us, it’s difficult to even imagine the feelings such misfortune most evoke. As he neared the end of his talk, the auditorium continued to listen silently. This was the first occasion he had ever shared his story with a public audience. I witnessed more than one teary eye in the crowd.
Closing thoughts on the clinical conference experience
Although the conference was filled with exciting new science and promising treatments, to me, Dr. Winer’s personal address was the most memorable part. His story leaves one feeling profoundly humbled, even embarrassed given the trivial things we tend to gripe about. It was a compelling reminder to take stock of the all that we too often take for granted. While graduate school is trying at times (to put it lightly…), we’d do well to remember what a privilege it is to have the means and ability to even partake in research. Unsuspecting experiences like this are what make attending conferences an indispensable experience for ECRs. For all these reasons and more, the merits of attending a clinical conference are plain. And at the end, you’ll get to depart with renewed perspective about the real purpose for doing basic science research.
Featured image: obtained via flickr, public domain CC0 license.
Yoo Jung (February 24, 2014). Why Every Science Student Should Attend a Conference
Sørlie, T. et al. (September 11, 2001). Gene expression patterns of breast carcinomas distinguish tumor subclasses with clinical implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science; vol. 98 no. 19.
Perou, C.M, et al. (August 17, 2000). Molecular portraits of human breast tumours Nature 406, 747-752
Charles M. Perou faculty page, University of North Carolina School of Medicine website
Mitchel, P.S. et al. (July 29, 200). Circulating microRNAs as stable blood-based markers for cancer detection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science; vol. 105 no. 30.
Eric P. Winer faculty page, Harvard Cancer Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute website
Wikipedia entry on Hemophilia A. Accessed on April 4th, 2017
History of Bleeding Disorders. National Hemophilia Foundation. Accessed on April 4th, 2017
Bibler, M.R. et al. (December 12, 1986). Disseminated Sporotrichosis in a Patient With HIV Infection After Treatment for Acquired Factor VIII Inhibitor. Journal of the American Medical Society. 256(22):3125-3126