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Merdeka Award Grant Recipient Dr Abhi Veerakumarasivam Presented His Research Findings at the Cancer Research Conference in San Diego, California

07 MAY 2014
Dr Abhi Veerakumarasivam, one of the two recipients of the 2012-2013 Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment presented his research findings at the world’s biggest cancer research conference, the 105th American Association of Cancer Research Annual Scientific Meeting 2014 in San Diego, California. He is currently a visiting scientist at the Institute of Genetic Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America. In his first report from his attachment, he shares his experience at the conference.
 
Week 1: 5 - 9 April 2014
American Association of Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2013, San Diego, California
 
"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." – Isaac Newton, 1675

Attending and presenting at the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Scientific Meeting 2014 brought an overwhelming sense of humility and appreciation of the immense data that has been generated through the continuous diversification and coalescing of the multiple interdisciplinary networks of cancer research. With an estimated 18,000 delegates, the 5-day conference was held at the sprawling San Diego Convention Centre. More than 6000 proffered papers and hundreds of invited talks by the world’s top cancer researchers provided a snapshot of the current paradigms that govern our perspectives of the disease and how the different research initiatives build on past and present discoveries. The most current and innovative technological tools that drive laboratory advancements were also on display.

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Dr Veerakumarasivam standing next to his research poster that explains how specific genetic modulations can be made to reduce the propensity of cancer cells to proliferate and invade.

“Harnessing Breakthroughs-Targeting Cures” was the theme of this year’s conference. I was truly amazed how basic fundamental knowledge on cancer biology was being translated into more efficacious patient clinical management strategies at such an unprecedented frequency. The pace at which bench-to-bedside-to-society translation of scientific discoveries occurs has accelerated and the goal to individualised medical care of patients appears a greater reality than ever before.  The impact of this conference was best epitomised by the jostling of the spotlight by the world’s biopharmaceutical companies to unveil new pioneering clinical trial data on some of the newest targeted therapies in the pipeline. For example, Pfizer disclosed results from a Phase II clinical trial that showed how a new therapeutic target in combination with other drugs doubled the progression-free survival of women with a particular subtype of metastatic breast cancer. It was also interesting to read in the newspapers how the presentations at these research meeting did not only interest scientists but also investors and were thought to impact on how the companies’ stocks would perform!

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Left: “Harnessing Breakthroughs-Targeting Cures”: Theme of the 105th American Association of Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2014 in San Diego. Right: The sheer volume of the conference programme and proceedings reflects the magnitude and intensity of the scientific exchange at the conference.

Despite a greater emphasis on the biology of cancer, the spotlight was also shared with the socio-environmental aspects of the cancer epidemic. For example, despite it being the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General's report on the health consequences of tobacco and that the various tobacco control initiatives have prevented millions of premature deaths, millions are still succumbing to smoking-related cancers. Current concepts in epidemiology and prevention research were also highlighted. It was interesting to see the body of work that was done to show how a standard diabetic medication, Metformin was being assessed as an inhibitor of cancer progression and the use of aspirin as a chemoprevention or therapeutic agent. The relationship between nutrition, physical activity, energy balance and cancer was also showcased.
 
Besides the didactic lectures, there were also method workshops to familiarise researchers with the various cutting-edge technologies. I attended a few on next-generation sequencing, which allows for parallel sequencing of millions of DNA and RNA sequences in a given cell or tissue. This technology has revolutionised how we understand the complexity of the processes that occur in the cell, either in normal physiology or disease. Besides understanding the application and the immense utility of this technology, the methodological limitations, biases and considerations were also discussed in length. Through the meet-the-expert sessions, participants were able to meet various scientific leaders who head the editorial boards of various high-impact publications to understand the publishing expectations from the perspective of the journals’ editors and reviewers.
 
To attend the individual talks in the various parallel sessions required rushing from one hall to another from 7.00am until 8.30pm. At any one time, there were at least 15 parallel sessions. Despite being frantic at times, the enforced mobility facilitated the bumping into old colleagues and mentors from my PhD training years at Cambridge, such as Professors Carlos Caldas and Koichi Ichimura. It was fun to catch-up and discuss about the progress we have made and my scientific experience in Malaysia thus far.
 
An intensive-half day grant-writing workshop that featured keynote presentations, a mock study session and a roundtable discussion with senior scientists was also organised. I had the privilege of sitting in a roundtable discussion with Prof. Dr Raju Kuchelarpati, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, Harvard Medical School. Amongst the topics discussed included, identifying funding opportunities, developing effective specific aims and the grant scoring and review process. As an expert review panelist for the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation of Malaysia, it was an opportunity for introspection and to delineate opportunities for improvement. One aspect that I found fascinating was that there was a clear mechanistic delineation of grant applications over a career trajectory, from a junior investigator to an established senior investigator. Such a clearly defined funding mechanism inspires a young generation of researchers while also ensuring sustainability of a research ecosystem that is driven by the experience of excellence.      
 
The collegiality of the scientific discourse and the genuine engagement in knowledge discovery was evident everywhere. It was indeed gratifying to have world-renowned experts in the field of bladder cancer such as Prof Margaret Knowles make an effort to visit my poster and provide her insights and support. The online proceedings-itinerary planer allowed participants to search and track the schedule and abstracts of the thousands of research papers and presentations at the conference by keywords. It gave me the opportunity to look out for fellow Malaysians. Three other Malaysian-based research papers were captured. Of which, two of the presenters were accorded the prestigious AACR Scholar-in-Training awards. It was exciting to see that the research initiatives by our young researchers in Malaysia were being recognised and promoted by the international community.

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Harvard-trained pharmacologist, Dr Ivy Chung who is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Malaya discusses the work presented by Dr Rafid Salim Jabir, a PhD student at the Universiti Putra Malaysia (Thesis supervisor: Prof Dr Johnson Stanslas). Dr Jabir was one of the recipients of the AACR-Scholar-in-Training awards.

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Bright young Malaysian students doing their country proud. (L) Jaslyn Soo from Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation and University of Malaya also received the AACR-Scholar-in-Training Fellowship. (R) Kavita Subramaniam, PhD student at University of Malaya (Thesis supervisor: Dr Ivy Chung) also presented her cancer research findings.

I am so grateful for the Merdeka Award Grant and my greatest appreciation to PETRONAS, ExxonMobil and Shell for providing this opportunity. The AACR annual meeting truly provides a platform to be a part of a cohesive global cancer research community to learn about the cutting-edge advances, benchmark and obtain objective feedback on my own research and foster collaborations and networks. I am determined to attend and present my work at the next AACR Annual Meeting in 2015, scheduled to be held in Philadelphia.
 
The Newton quote at the start of this retrospection truly embodies the spirit of AACR. It has and will continue to take unprecedented teamwork and determination to tackle one of the greatest challenges in medicine. It was also a stark reminder of the need to be continuously updating oneself with the current advances and to ensure that the research question addressed is viable and clinically relevant. I hope more cancer researchers in Malaysia will try to attend this conference to map their research initiatives in a global perspective. In a country like Malaysia, where the research community and research-related funding is relatively small, it is imperative that researchers truly identify niche areas that can truly make an impact. It is our responsibility to ensure that the research we conduct transcends beyond surrogate endpoints such as publications and patents and makes a positive, tangible impact to society.
 
Watch this page for further update from Dr Abhi
 
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