A Word From: Scott Lowe, Senthil Muthuswamy & M. Celeste Simon


The fourth biennial meeting on the Biology of Cancer: Microenvironment & Metastasis was held at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory October 10-14, 2017. One of a handful of CSHL meetings focused on cancer research, we spoke with the co-organizers, Scott Lowe, Senthil Muthuswamy, and M. Celeste Simon, about the unique aspects of their meeting. 

To kick off the discussion, Senthil---one of the meeting’s founders---shared his vision for the inaugural 2011 meeting and how it’s evolved over the last six years. 

Senthil: The idea was to have a Cold Spring Harbor-style meeting that focused on cancer biology as a whole, a small-meeting version of AACR that covers microenvironment, metastasis, imaging for detection, trials, and sometimes therapies as well. The more clinical and translational aspects have since been removed because there is a clinical trials companion meeting for the first time this year (Next Generation Cancer Clinical Trials). We are therefore concentrating mostly on biology in this meeting, and will probably stay like this as long as the companion meeting continues. 
Also, this year we introduced a career session, a talk given by Bruce Zetter followed by a dinner organized by CSHL. Bruce has been giving career talks to Harvard students and Damon Runyon Fellows about topics like funding in cancer research. I’ve heard positive reactions about the talks, so I thought it would be good to invite Bruce here and couple his talk with the career dinner. 

Next, we discussed the research developments they’re most excited about: 

Celeste: Because of combinatorial approaches to therapy, we're starting to hear of ways to broaden what’s working for some patients. Obviously, there’s a very reasonable and appropriate emphasis on the immunology therapy right now but, like every other approach, it doesn’t benefit everybody. So how can we combine things in a way that more patients durably respond? It goes without saying that the more you know, the more tools you can bring to the table. But we now have so many tools: It’s not that there aren’t enough treatments, there may almost be too many and we don't know who to treat with them or how to best combine them. By understanding all the different mechanisms and interactions between cells and the tumor environment, I think we can logically design trials that will more likely be successful.
Scott: In contrast to CSHL’s other major cancer meeting, (Mechanisms & Models of Cancer) which originated from cancer genetics, this meeting concentrates on the tumor microenvironment. Here, you get a lot more epigenetics and things that are not simply or directly derived from gene mutations. One thing we’ve seen over and over again, a very interesting and somewhat terrifying aspect of cancer, is this sort of plasticity cells have that isn't driven so much by gene mutations, but is maybe enabled by them to change cell fate. This has long-range implications not only for cancer evolution but therapy response as well. We heard from Cory Abate-Shen's talk, for example, of cells that can become resistant to a target of drugs by changing their natures so they no longer care about that target. I think that’s surprising and a really important result.
Senthil: Along the same lines, a highlight of this meeting is to understand how a tumor cell uses its microenvironment to adapt, and how it dictates or actually learns from it. This bears out in some of the talks we’ve heard where genetics of the tumor dictate the immune interactions. I think this meeting helps bring together these diverse topics and pockets, and then connect them together -- which is hard to do at a large or specialized meeting.  

Historically, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows make up approximately 50% of the meeting’s attendees each year, so we were curious about how young scientists benefit from participating in this meeting. 

Scott: Beyond the fact that the vast majority of talks are selected from the abstract submissions and feature new results, this has always been a really interactive venue. People tend to stay on campus and see each other in the poster sessions, at Blackford, and in the bar, so there’s always a lot of discussion. That’s what I think really makes this meeting great.
Celeste: Each one of our sessions is a meeting unto itself quite frequently. For me, I’m catching up on a lot of the latest things that I’m a little bit out of date on, like some of the immunology we heard this year. These are very fast-moving fields that would be difficult to catch up on at more specialized or larger meetings. I think everybody benefits. We’ve got PIs, postdocs, students, and even somebody very august like Richard Hynes. He isn’t an invited speaker and I don’t know if there’s anyone from his lab here this year, but he just showed up to learn. 
Scott: That’s a great validation of the meeting.
Senthil: Exactly.
Scott: I agree that everybody benefits. It’s a great meeting to come to if you’re a senior graduate student interested in cancer but don’t yet know what to specialize in. This meeting will expose you to really cutting-edge work and help you decide what you want to do as the next step. There are a lot of students here thinking about what to do for their postdocs, and that’ll be true in the future too.  
Celeste: Another thing I thought was interesting: I saw at least two people say, “By the way, I’m on the job market for a faculty position.”
Senthil: It happens very frequently, it’s a continued trend. 
Celeste: That’s good! I heard a couple of talks here that I’m going to definitely notify our search committee about.

Closely related, this year’s meeting debuted a new element called “Junior Stars Sessions,” which featured talks by early-career investigators.

Scott: The sessions highlighting young, rising junior faculty seem to have been a success. The science has been great. 
Senthil: Lots of work in emerging fields, interesting topics that are not mainstream in some places. 
Scott: It’s an evolution of what’s special about Cold Spring Harbor meetings. One reason I like the meetings here is that historically, most of the talks come from the abstract submissions. What you're getting is the people who actually did the experiments often are the ones presenting the work and, in many cases, this is the first chance they’ve had to give a big talk. The general philosophy of Cold Spring Harbor meetings is that this is the place where people get to talk about their work at an early stage in their careers. So in addition to disseminating science, we're helping early-stage investigators make a name for themselves. For me, that’s what I want to accomplish as a meeting organizer. 
Celeste: There are many challenges to launching a lab, but one is being really seen as independent. Many junior stars are kind of at that point where they are just far enough out from their mentors’ labs – who are usually pretty well established. The Junior Stars Session is just a great forum I’d like to see more of, frankly. I’d like to see it become a tradition because of the positive response it’s received; people have come up to me and said they thought it was great. It can really be helpful for those who, in another few years, will be coming up for tenure; this can help them make the connections. 
Senthil: For students and postdocs to hear a scientist who is up-and-coming, it’s inspirational for them. They don’t just see the big names talking -- they see people who are not too far from where they are being recognized as “Junior Stars.” I think that’s inspirational. 

The Biology of Cancer: Microenvironment & Metastasis meeting returns to the Laboratory in late September 2019. If you’re looking for a meeting in the years that Biology of Cancer: Microenvironment & Metastasis is not at CSHL, the Mechanisms & Models of Cancer meeting is a great alternative.  

For more conversations with other meeting organizers, check out the rest of our A Word From series. 

Photo: Constance Brukin