The 32nd EORTC-NCI-AACR Symposium will take place on the 24 and 25 October. It will be the first to be held on line. How do the scientific chairs feel about a virtual meeting? What is being done to make sure that participants get the maximum benefit? In the second of two articles, they give us their views on these issues and share memories of earlier meetings and the changes that have taken place over the years.

Virtual conferences come with both pros and cons, but the events of 2020 have left organisers with no choice but to hold the ENA meeting on line. “It is an efficient way of communicating new discoveries and findings, and keepng the fight against cancer active. Let’s not forget that cancer is more deadly than Covid, and that we should be doing our best to contine the fight,” says Emiliano Calvo. “It is early days for virtual conferences and there is certain to be room for improvement, but I believe that this mode of communication is here to stay.”

The reduction of the risk of exposure to an infectious disease is the most obvious advantage of  holding events on line at this time, but there are others. “They mean that people don’t need to travel long distances to attend, and they offer the same content as well as providing the ability to interact – albeit it virtually – with the presenters. We have tried hard to maintain the ability to have the small group dynamics and discussions that are such an important aspect of this meeting,” James Gulley adds.

Bill Sellers will miss the lack of informal conversation. “So many of the things that happen to you during your scientific career are collaborations that start because you met a speaker at a conference. On the other hand, there is a big advantage in being able to go rapidly between sessions on line. In this format, you can pretty much go to every talk you want. And travel expenses are a fundamental barrier for many of those who might wish to attend the meeting. So this should be a real opportunity for younger researchers.”

Gulley remembers his first ENA meeting clearly. “It was in 2016, in Munich. What I remember most was the interaction with many investigators I hadn’t had the chance to meet before, often with different areas of expertise and unique approaches to a given problem. The meeting has continued to attract scientists at the cutting edge of translational research, and over the last ten years has added some amazing sessions in immunotherapy.”

Calvo and Sellers go back a bit further. “I have been coming to the meeting with no interruption, as far as I remember, for about two decades. It is the home for all people involved in Phase 1 trials and early translational research – the place where you can easily find someone working in the same areas as yours. Interaction, the exchange of ideas and collaborations are easily promoted there, as are friendships. That has not changed, but the content has, however. Today we promote better drugs, targets and science, reflecting the dramatic improvement in oncology treatment that has taken place over the last few years,” says Calvo.

“My first ENA was 15 years ago,” says Sellers. “My memories are less about how the meeting has changed and more about how the world of cancer therapeutic discovery has transformed beyond all recognition. There’s been an explosion in our ability to make new therapeutics that take advantage of the science that has emerged in academia. At the first meeting I went to we didn’t know much about the cancer genome, but now thousands of tumours that have been sequenced to completion. We didn’t have CRISPR ten years ago. We didn’t have methods to induce loss of gene function genetically; there was no such thing as cell therapy, and so much more. The wealth of opportunity we have has been unbelievable, and those opportunities continue to grow year on year.”