Guest post: What I learned at the Koch Symposium

June 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

Jeremy Purvis, from the Lahav lab, went to the Koch Institute Summer Symposium earlier this month and was kind enough to write up what he learned for the benefit of It Takes 30 readers.  Here’s what he says:

The theme of this year’s symposium was ‘Integrative Approaches to Cancer Research’, and it featured a panel of twenty world-class researchers covering a wide spectrum of scientific perspectives and methodologies. As Lewis Chodosh pointed out on Friday morning, mortality due to cancer has changed very little over the past thirty years (in contrast to heart disease), which presses us to organize our efforts to understand its causes and potential treatments. For the benefit of those who were not able to make it to the symposium, I’ve highlighted a few of the memorable presentations from the two-day event.

Cancer Immunology and Translation (Thursday morning):

Owen Witte (UCLA/HHMI) gave an interesting seminar on prostate tissue stem cells and cancer progression. Witte’s lab has developed a model system in which healthy sections of removed prostate tissue can be artificially transformed to produce tissue sections that are virtually indistinguishable from ‘real’ prostate cancer (the photos of histological sections were striking), using a lentiviral vector that expresses a combination of prostate-specific oncogenes. This system should provide an excellent ex vivo model for studying tumorigenesis in prostate tissue.

David Raulet (UC Berkeley) focused on how cancer cells are recognized by natural killer cells. He emphasized the link between genotoxic stress, expression of the surface marker NKG2D, and recognition of these dangerous markers by patrolling immune cells.

Cellular Mechanisms of Tumorigenesis (Thursday afternoon):

Eric Lander (Broad Institute), in an inspiring seminar, defended what he called the “data-first” ethos by citing examples of promising hypotheses generated by genome-wide studies — possibly prompted by a recent article in the New York Times suggesting that few medical advances had resulted from genome mapping. Among the examples he cited was the detection of a lincRNA (Large Intergenic Non Coding RNA) near the p21 promoter that appears to mediate p53-mediated target gene suppression. Also intriguing were results of a study comparing genomic profiles for healthy individuals versus patients with multiple myeloma. Patient profiles showed enrichment for genes involved in the coagulation pathway, in particular, the activation of thrombin. The preliminary hypothesis is that the lesser-known role of thrombin as a mitogenic activator somehow contributes to development of this disease.

Lisa Coussens gave an eye-opening talk in which she discussed how tumor tissues can be profiled for cell surface markers to understand which immune cells are recruited to a particular tumor. Some tumor types show incredible homogeneity with respect to marker profiling, while others show more complicated patterns. This seminar was likely a wake-up call for many cell biologists who think of cancer primarily in terms of intracellular lesions and signaling events.

Detecting and Modeling Cancer (Friday morning):

Perhaps the most non-traditional research strategy of the meeting was presented by Sam Gambhir (Stanford). He described an early cancer detection system using sound waves  to detect biomarkers in the blood stream. Ultrasonic waves are directed at selected tissues, causing cells in the region to shed many of their cell surface markers, which are then deposited into the bloodstream. By taking blood samples before and after exposure to sound, one is able to detect subtle differences (approaching femtomolar levels) in critical biomarkers with known diagnostic significance. By highlighting the dramatically different survival rates for early versus late-stage cancers, Dr. Gambhir emphasized the importance of early detection research, which is outfunded by late-cancer research by nearly a hundred dollars to one.

These are only a few examples of the many interesting presentations at this year’s symposium. Other topics included the role of microRNAs in cancer and inflammation; epigenetic control of cancer; the RAS PI3K networks; nano-fabrication technologies for identifying circulating tumor cells; application of synthetic biology to cancer; building artificial tumor microenvironments; tumor dormancy and recurrence; drug development and clinical trials; and cancer stem cells. Videos of talks should soon be available at the symposium website.  I thought it was well worthwhile and would encourage anyone interested in cancer to consider attending next year.

Jeremy Purvis

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