Conference Diaries - SMR with Grace

Conference Diaries - SMR with Grace

SMR Conference Diary | Wednesday 20th November 2019

Today is the first day of the Society for Melanoma Research Congress, held in Salt Lake City – my first conference as a PhD student! This year’s conference is in the very elegant Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, where I will be spending the next 4 days hoping to absorb everything I possibly can across the many different fields of melanoma research.

I start the evening by picking up my conference badge from registration and setting up my poster. Poster presentations are a great way to discuss your research, and this year SMR has over 200 posters on display in the ballroom of the hotel. I’m looking forward to learning about other researchers’ work from all around the world over the course of the conference.

The opening session was chaired by none other than the president of SMR, MIA’s Co-Medical Director and co-leader of our research group, Professor Georgina Long. Georgina highlighted the amazing advances in melanoma research that have happened this year, many of which will be presented at SMR over the next few days.

Next up was the keynote presentation by Thea Tlsty, who has done some amazing work investigating how cancers begin. She studies stromal cells, which are a very diverse group of cells in connective tissue structures, in the context of cancer. In Thea’s presentation, she talked about how stromal cells can promote the development of cancers from their earliest stages, and about her work using molecular markers to identify when this could be happening. While Thea’s talk mostly centred on breast cancer, it was a really impressive approach to investigating cancer development and a great way to start the conference.

After the welcome reception, I headed home to get some rest – presentations start again at 8 am tomorrow!

SMR Conference Diary | Thursday 21st November 2019

Here we go – the first full day of the conference! There are four sessions of talks today, each focusing on a different field of melanoma research. Sessions are made up of a combination of 15-minute talks focusing on a single project, and 30-minute talks which cover the presenter’s work more broadly – there’s a great mix of these in each session. All of the talks are held in the Grand Ballroom of the hotel, which is complete with not one, but four chandeliers!

The first session is on Ras Family GTPase Signalling – something that sounds quite complicated, and that I’m not very familiar with! This topic is actually a really important part of targeted therapy for melanoma – it’s the molecular pathway that BRAF and MEK inhibitors act on. Understanding how this pathway works, especially in melanoma, is a key part of learning how we can improve targeted therapies and overcome resistance to them. In this session, we learned about how mutations in genes other than BRAF and MEK can change the way that this pathway impacts melanoma development, metastasis and therapy resistance.

In my work for my PhD, I’m used to studying samples from patients who have generously allowed their tissue to be banked and used for research. So, the next session was quite new for me too – it looked at ways that researchers can replicate melanoma growth & development in a lab. This is very useful as it means that researchers have more control over the conditions that tissue they study exists in, allowing them to look more specifically into particular molecules and cell types. The presentations in this session talked about some of the ways that researchers have been able to make these models more accurate. Some of the talks that I really liked in this session used these models to look at different aspects of the immune system in melanoma, and their work gives me a lot to think about for my own research.

After a very nice lunch provided by the hotel, our third session was about Women in Science. It’s great to see how far gender equality has come in science over the past few decades! Importantly, we also discussed the issues that still face women in science, particularly early in their careers.

Even though it’s cloudy and almost freezing outside in Salt Lake City, I’m very aware that summer is just around the corner back in Australia. I have a choice of two different sessions to attend in the afternoon and with this in mind, I go to the session centred on melanoma prevention. As expected, an important takeaway from the session was that protecting yourself from UV radiation is key to preventing melanoma – but one thing I didn’t actually know was that in Australia, the UV level is high enough every single day all year round that to be fully protected we should be wearing sunscreen every single day!

The very last part of the day is the poster presentations. This is an opportunity for everyone presenting a poster to talk to other melanoma researchers about their latest research – with over 200 posters in one hall, there’s a lot to learn! It’s also a great time to meet people from different research groups, and see what directions the field is going in. Once it’s over I am relieved to have made it to the end of the day – there’s a lot to take in, and tomorrow is another full day of talks!

SMR Conference Diary | Friday 22nd November 2019

Once again we have a very full day for the third day of SMR!

First up – a session on metastasis. A lot of melanoma research that I normally see, and research that happens in our lab, looks at melanoma once it’s already metastasised. So, this session is really interesting to me as it looks at ways that metastasis occurs in the first place. We learned about how some individual melanoma cells might be more likely to metastasise than others from the same tumour, and how some tumours have specific genetic mutations that control how they metastasise.

Tumours, including melanoma, exist within the context of the cells that surround them – like stromal cells, which were the focus of the keynote session on day one. More than just cells, there are many molecules and cell structures that can interact with melanoma. So in this way, as much as tumours shape the tissue around them they are also influenced by their cellular surroundings. To really understand what is happening to a tumour as it develops, researchers often need a holistic view of the microenvironment, which is the focus of the next session of the day. The topics discussed range from intracellular structures like microtubules to lymph vessels, all the way down to a single gene mutation in a specific cell type. Often in our lab, we focus on the immune microenvironment in melanoma, but from this session, it’s become clearer to me that the tumour microenvironment as a whole actually has really wide-ranging impacts on melanoma.

The theme of the third session was signalling – that is, ways that cells transmit molecular messages – and targeted therapies. Each of the three talks in this session looked at ways of predicting or increasing patient response to different systemic therapies, including one talk on immune therapies, one on targeted therapies and one looking at combinations of the two. While this session was very varied, it emphasised the complexity of these treatments and highlights how much we still don’t know about why these therapies might not always work.

Just like yesterday, I have a choice of sessions to go to for the final session of the day, and today I decide to go to the session on melanoma metabolism. This is quite a new area for our lab, and I’m interested to see what kinds of ways it can be investigated. In melanoma, cell metabolism can actually have a huge impact on which tumour cells survive. In fact, it can even have an effect on metastasis – it turns out that cells that are better at a certain type of metabolism, known as oxidative phosphorylation, are more likely to survive the metabolic stress brought on by metastasis. Researchers are even looking at ways to target particular metabolic pathways as a potential treatment method. Metabolism is certainly an area that looks like it’ll be interesting in the future!

The final part of the day is the awards ceremony in the evening, held at the Leonardo Museum – attendees have the opportunity to browse the exhibits as well as attend the ceremony! The awards ceremony is where yearly awards for the society are given out, and is an opportunity for everyone at the conference to catch up. While I left early, from what I heard it lasted well into the night!

SMR Conference Diary | Saturday 23nd November 2019

We have a very early start for the final day of the conference after the awards ceremony last night, with the first session being an update on neoadjuvant therapy. This is a fairly novel treatment strategy for melanoma, in which patients are given systemic therapies before their melanomas are removed with surgery. As well as showing promising results in the clinic, it’s also beneficial for translational research as it allows us to see how treatments actually work in patients. Both of MIA's Co-Medical Directors, Professor Richard Scolyer and Professor Georgina Long, talks about their ongoing work in neoadjuvant therapy during the session – MIA is really playing a large role in moving the field forward.

The next session is on melanoma immunology – this is more my area! As we’ve seen huge improvements in the treatment of melanoma through the success of immunotherapy, it’s vital for us to understand the immune system’s reaction to melanoma. More than this, the immune system could even give insights into how melanomas are allowed to develop and spread. The talks in this session look at a lot of different immune cell populations in the context of immunotherapy, and how particular molecules may eventually be able to act as biomarkers’ – characteristics we can test to assess whether or not a patient will respond to different types of immunotherapy. Not only my own PhD, but the work of many others across MIA is focused on the immune system in melanoma, so it was really great to be able to reinforce & expand on my knowledge in this session.

The final session of the conference was dedicated to late-breaking clinical abstracts. These are the newest developments & updates in new treatments and clinical trials for melanoma, so recent that they were shown for the very first time in this session. It’s really exciting to see where the treatment of melanoma could potentially be heading!

And with that, we’ve reached the end of the SMR Conference for 2019! I’m so glad that this was my first conference – it was a great introduction to the melanoma research community. Something else that really stood out to me about this conference that today, melanoma is being researched from so many different angles and in so many different ways. Having a conference like this, where everyone in melanoma can come together and learn from each other, is of huge benefit to everybody who is involved with disease.

I really hope that I’ll be able to come again next year – until then, I’ll be back at work in the lab!