November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and I cannot think of a better way to kick it off than by talking about our Fall Science Meeting and the lung cancer researchers in attendance, whose commitment and collaborative spirit are helping to improve outcomes for lung cancer patients.
On October 21, thirty-eight scientists and doctors came together in Philadelphia to discuss the latest developments in the lung cancer field. Eighteen awardees presented the research findings that have emerged from their LUNGevity-funded projects. The three 2016 Career Development Awardees also presented their approaches to addressing particular unmet needs in early detection and treatment for lung cancer. The presentations stimulated insightful discussions between the awardees and members of our esteemed Scientific Advisory Board (SAB).
Sitting in a room full of doctors and scientists who are committed to making a difference to the lives of lung cancer patients is an incredibly inspiring experience. Yes, science is the common language they speak. And yes, they are all experts in their fields—be it immunotherapy, pulmonology, bioinformatics, or another. But I was humbled by their commitment to drive science that is meaningful to the lung cancer patient. LUNGevity has recently launched several patient-centric initiatives to incorporate the voice of the lung cancer patient into research, treatment, and policy. After being presented with this new research direction, our SAB members provided invaluable guidance on how best to accomplish our goals. I also observed senior scientists give advice and direction to junior scientists who approached them for guidance. To me, these are clear demonstrations of commitment to ensuring that research is conducted in the best and most productive way.
Another force that drives progress in research is collaboration. At this meeting, new collaborations between scientists who have complementary tools were formed, sometimes very quickly! For example, I introduced two scientists. When I returned to join their conversation just ten minutes later, they had already set up a meeting for the following week to discuss how the capabilities at one scientist’s institution could be used to drive forward the research of the other scientist. As a patient advocate, I am thrilled to see the generosity and passion that these collaborations bring to the field of lung cancer research.
I also saw “cross-pollination” in action (I borrowed the term from my botany friends, and because I love gardening in my spare time). Cross-pollination involves discussions between scientists who would not normally have reason to talk to each other because they come from very different fields. I was fascinated by the exchange between a lung cancer molecular biologist (who is developing biomarker signatures that will predict recurrence in lung cancer patients who have undergone surgery) and a pediatric oncologist (who treats children with cancer) about how some of the tools developed by the biologist can be useful to the pediatric oncologist’s research. We should never underestimate the power of cross-pollination. Early successes of immunotherapy for the treatment of melanoma taught us about immunotherapy in lung cancer, and we now have immunotherapy in the first-line setting for some non-small cell lung cancer patients.
The icing on the cake was hearing from our Career Development Awardees, who are good exemplars of commitment, collaboration, and cross-pollination. The LUNGevity CDA program attracts the brightest lung cancer researchers who are in the early stages of their careers. Apart from financial support, these scientists have access, through our award program, to the expertise of established doctors and scientists. The new class of 2016 CDAers seek solutions to important unmet needs such as improving the biopsy process to diagnose lung cancer in its early stages, developing biomarkers for the early detection of squamous cell lung cancer, and understanding why small cell lung cancer becomes resistant to chemotherapy. I was also delighted to see one of our past CDAers, Dr. Lauren Byers, present her current research as a fully independent scientist. As a CDAer under the mentorship of Dr. John Heymach (past awardee and current SAB member), Dr. Byers studied how a protein called PARP can be targeted in small cell lung cancer. Drugs that block PARP are currently in clinical trials. Dr. Byers is now researching how we can combine targeted therapy with immunotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer.
As Director of Research and Policy, I get to wear multiple hats—those of a patient advocate and a scientist—usually on different days. The LUNGevity Fall Science Meeting is one of those days when I wear both hats with pride.
[In the next three blogs, you will learn about some of the exciting research by LUNGevity awardees.]
Dr. Basu Roy is LUNGevity's Director of Science Communications and Programs.