Our Annual Scientific Gathering is central to identifying, developing and funding research projects for the new year. This year, our meeting was held in Sausalito, California from October 10-12th. We brought together the most creative minds in cancer research, along with top funders, with the hopes of inspiring innovative thinking to accelerate science and make new therapies a reality for patients. As a result, some of the potential projects that were presented are ones in which we will provide funding, while others simply needed a nudge in the right direction or an introduction to the right partner to bring new and important collaborations to life.
The meeting was attended by preeminent scientists and clinicians, as well as patients, industry and government officials representing more than 35 institutions, including: Boston Children's Hospital, UCSF, Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Exosome Diagnostics, Johns Hopkins, Cleveland Clinic, Amgen, Regulus, Novartis, UCSD, Columbia University, Harvard/Dana Farber, Agios, PureTech and others.
The presentations focused on innovations in translational research, including: multiple genetic pathways that lead to brain cancer, therapeutic potential of targeting the IDH1 gene, and immune therapy approaches to battling the disease. Click here for the 2012 Annual Scientific Gathering agenda.
The meeting led off with Dr. Henry Brem, Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. Henry not only is a top surgeon and runs one of the top departments in the country, he is a great patient-centered clinician. Henry was an early scientific contributor to ABC2 and has been a strong supporter of our Race for Hope. The conversation with Henry was followed with a talk by Patrick Wen of Harvard/Dana Faber, another top patient-centered clinician who is one of the leaders in the clinical research that brings new drugs to patients.
The next speaker was Antonio Iavarone from Columbia University. He made one this year’s pivotal brain cancer discoveries, identifying a gene fusion mutation that provides an entirely new target for the treatment of brain cancer patients and that may be addressable by drugs already used to treat other cancers. While this mutation occurs in only a small percentage of brain tumors, it is this type of discovery that really validates the personalized medicine approach to drug development and treatment and is an important step in building the mosaic that we believe will be the future of brain cancer care.
Following Antonio was Luis Parada from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Luis is Chair of the Department of Developmental Biology at UTSW and is one of the world’s experts on cancer stem cells. We then heard a presentation from Jeremy Rich, Chairman of Stem Cell Biology at the Cleveland Clinic. We have known Jeremy since he was at Duke managing our original drug screening program. His recent work on cancer stem cells and the effects of their micro-environment has been the focus of several major publications.
The session after lunch led off with Scott Pomeroy, Professor at Harvard and Chair of Neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital. Scott is a leader in the field of genetic regulation of medulloblastoma. We are looking to add people to our network who work on tumors outside of GBM in order to cross-pollinate research and bring new insights and approaches to bear across the broader field. This also applies to our looking at lower-grade gliomas (LGG), such as astrocytomas, which over time can progress to become GBMs.
This LGG interest led to the next presentation by Joe Costello from UCSF. ABC2 funded Joe this year for a project that examines the impact of Temodar treatment on LGG’s. Based on this work, ABC2 is also working with Joe and Susan Chang (also from UCSF) to convene a specialized low grade glioma meeting in January that will bring together key experts from around the country to more fully examine how low grade gliomas are diagnosed and treated.
Following Joe’s talk, Sam Agresta, the head of Clinical Development from Agios, presented their plans for the clinical trial of a new drug targeting IDH1 mutations in lower grade gliomas. This talk represented the rapid ongoing development of a project that we initiated with our late-2009 funding of Agios to drive their cancer metabolism platform into brain cancer.
The late afternoon session led off with Neil Gibson from San Diego-based Regulus Therapeutics. Regulus is conducting micro-RNA research related to brain tumors. The research is now moving into clinic and Neil provided an update. ABC2 has invested in a collaborative project between Regulus and Samsung.
The next speaker was David Steinberg, a partner at PureTech Ventures. PureTech Ventures is a Boston-based venture firm born out of MIT and its surrounds. PureTech takes a different approach to moving life science opportunities forward -- one closer to how we think about things. Steinberg shared how the PureTech model might be applied to drive brain cancer discoveries. Finding ways to fund the translation of early medical discoveries from university laboratories into the clinic and the commercial marketplace is a one of the real challenges facing the brain tumor community. This used to be an area heavily occupied by venture-backed biotechnology companies. However, venture has largely moved away from this area and the larger pharmaceutical companies have significantly changed their research philosophy and approach. New models are needed.
The last speaker on Thursday was Bill Sellers, the Global Head of Oncology for Novartis. Conventional wisdom has been that big pharma sees brain cancer as a market too difficult and too small to justify much attention. Bill is a very highly regarded scientist and scientific executive and in our meetings with him he has shown real interest in looking more fully at this space. Not only was it interesting to get his perspective as a key leader in big pharma, we hope to match him up with some of our key researchers in ways that would facilitate further work by Novartis in this space.
On Friday, the session continued down the industrial path established at the end of the first day, leading off with a talk by Sasha Kamb, the Senior VP of Research at Amgen. Kamb's talk was followed by Richard Caprioli, a Professor in the Departments of Chemistry, Medicine and Pharmacology at Vanderbilt. He is Chair of their Department of Biochemistry and Director of their highly regarded Mass Spectrometry Research Center. The type of work that Richard and his team are doing at Vanderbilt is a natural bridge between the academic and industrial communities. This was an excellent lead-in to the next two talks, the first by Johan Skog, Director of Research at Exosome Diagnostics and the second by Bob Carter, Chief of Neurosurgery at UCSD.
Last January, we brought together a multi-institutional meeting in New York City to explore the possible use of exosomes as diagnostic (and possibly therapeutic) tools for brain cancer. Out of that meeting we developed and funded a multi-institution project project, led by Bob Carter, to collect tumor tissue, cerebrospinal fluid and blood samples from brain tumor patients to see if exosomes could be collected from the CSF and blood, with genetic material from those exosomes then being compared to the genetic profile of the tumor itself. If this approach proves successful, it could result in the first effective blood-born biomarker for GBM. Johan talked about the biology of brain tumor exosomes and Bob talked about the project itself. There were a number of facilitated sub-meetings around the conference centered on different aspects of the exosome project and its potential.
The meeting closed with a talk by Bjorn Scheffler, a former post-doctoral fellow for one of our science advisors, Dennis Steindler from the University of Florida. Bjorn is now a Professor at the University of Bonn in Germany and not only is his work in GBM important, his presence helps us open up opportunities to more fully explore the work being done in Europe and to help bridge relationships between US and European researchers.
Throughout the year, I look forward to providing updates on the progress of the promising collaborations we sparked at our annual meeting and the projects we've helped to develop and fund.