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Scholar Retreat

September 13–15, 2012

Chaired By

 Anthony Letai MD, PhD of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Meeting Description

The Scholar Retreat held annually, invites scholars and mentors to attend a 3-day meeting. This meeting focuses on bringing junior scientists together from various areas of cancer research. The collaborations and innovative ideas that come from this meeting have been numerous and outstanding. The mentors provide great guidance regarding science and career for these junior scientists.

At the Retreat, the Scholars share their research with the other Scholars and Mentors. Each Scholar will participate in four sequential retreats, with all expenses paid by WGFRF. The opportunity for Scholars to connect and form relationships with researchers from completely different areas of cancer research and to have a sort of peer review is one of the most valuable roles of the Retreat. Through the Mentors, the Retreat offers Scholars guidance on practical career issues such as writing grants and preparing successful scientific publications.

Each year, the Scholar Retreat coincides with the Foundation’s annual ‘Blue Jean Ball’ fundraiser. All Scholars attend this event, providing them an opportunity to meet with families whose lives have been directly affected by cancer. This experience resonates particularly with scientists who, unlike clinicians, do not have contact with patients, by putting a human face on cancer.

Meeting Summary

The 8th annual Scholar re-treat featured presentations by Scholars and Mentors in each of the topics of the four most recent annual forums: the Biology and Treatment of Primary Brain Tumors, immunotherapy and Breaking Tolerance, Cancer genomics, and Epigenetics. One extremely heartening theme that was common to all of these sessions was that it was clear that our ability to study human tumors directly has increased vastly. no longer is it necessary to study only models and cells that are remote approximations of patients’ own tumors. now the trip between patient tumor, hypothesis generation and testing in the laboratory, and back to the patient is occurring nearly continuously, a vast improvement in recent years.

This retreat was fortunate to benefit from the experience of Forbeck stalwart Chuck Sherr (St. Jude’s, Memphis) who kicked off the retreat with a fascinating discussion of why if one particular type of mutation is selected in a cancer cell, another is not, and how this can teach you about the cancer’s cell of origin. The Brain Tumor session that followed, chaired by Martine Roussel (St. Jude’s, Memphis), was characterized by the type of bedside-to-bench investigation that is providing information so much more rapidly today, even in the challenging disease of glioma.

The Dinner was accompanied by an exciting keynote address by Tom Gajewski (University of Chicago), who shared recent advances in manipulating the immune system to recognize and destroy cancers. He particularly described how a certain type of immune cell, the T cell, can be directed against cancer cells. Most interestingly, his talk was not merely describing immunology theory, but also presented results of testing in patients, some of which showed strikingly encouraging responses. The lesson that came across was that the immune system can be recruited as a powerful ally in the search for durable remissions in even very challenging cancers.

The final day was a combination of genomics and Epigenetics. Cancer genomics is the study of the changes in the genetic code of cancer cells. This type of study has been tremendously advanced by the speed and economy of genome sequencing, so that now it is possible to sequence all the DNA in a tumor so efficiently that one can compare sequences among many tumors simultaneously. it is a challenge to manage the huge amount of information produced, but we learned that the payoff is that one can potentially use this information to identify new targets for cancer therapy and perhaps also to individualize cancer therapy based on the tumor’s individual genome.

However, the genome does not tell the whole story. For example, the cells of your eyeball, your skin, and your heart have the identical genome but look and function very differently. It is Epigenetics that creates these critical differences. Epigenetics is the study of all the extra chemical marks on the genome that influence how the genetic code is read. if the genome contains the genetic letters, the epigenome provides the punctuation. We heard about modern techniques to read how a cancer cell’s entire epigenome differs from that of normal cells and about how these differences might arise. Particularly excitingly, Jay Bradner (Dana-Farber, Boston) told us about how drugs can be developed to alter the epigenome of cancer cells, perhaps forcing them to misread their altered DNA and forget they are cancer cells, with some stunning examples of the effects on tumors. it was made clear that manipulation of the epigenome by drugs is laden with ample, unexploited potential in cancer.

A summary of the content of the presentations does not do justice to the amount of interaction that takes place during a retreat. The format of the meeting is more conducive to rapid learning and immediate response than the vast majority of cancer meetings elsewhere, and it permits dissemination of ideas in a way not possible at larger meetings. While some of this interaction takes place in the meeting rooms, it continues at the relaxed social events made possible by the organizers, and even after the meeting in collaboration via email. As always, the setting was most conducive to discussing science and the setting most con-genial to the scientists themselves, all one could want from a retreat.

Forum Participants

Oliver Ayrault, PhD
Institute Curie
 Forbeck Scholar

Oren Becher, MD
Duke University
 Forbeck Scholar

Benjamin P. Berman, PhD
University of Southern California
 Forbeck Scholar

Jay Bradner, MD
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
 Retreat Mentor

Joshua Brody, MD
Mount Sinai Hospital
 Forbeck Scholar

Grant Challen, PhD
Washington University
 Forbeck Scholar

Clark C. Chen, MD, PhD
University of California San Diego
 Forbeck Scholar

Derek Y. Chiang, PhD
"Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, Inc."
 Forbeck Scholar

Sharon J. Diskin, PhD
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
 Forbeck Scholar

Gary Hon, PhD
University of California San Diego
 Forbeck Scholar

Russell Jones, PhD
McGill University
 Forbeck Scholar

Carl June, MD
Abramson Cancer Center
 Retreat Mentor

Chang-Hyuk Kwon, PhD
The Ohio State University
 Forbeck Scholar

Anthony G. Letai, MD, PhD
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
 Retreat Mentor

Chris Putnam, PhD
Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research
 Forbeck Scholar

Alvaro Rada-Iglesias, PhD
Stanford University
 Forbeck Scholar

Martine F. Roussell, PhD
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
 Retreat Mentor

Stefanie Sarantopoulos, MD, PhD
Duke University
 Forbeck Scholar

Lou Staudt, MD, PhD
National Institutes of Health
 Retreat Mentor

Chris Vakoc, MD, PhD
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
 Forbeck Scholar

Lili Yang, PhD
University of California Los Angeles
 Forbeck Scholar