Building the Program

Building the Program

George W. Sledge, MD, FASCO

Mar 16, 2011

A few months ago I told you about the Education Committee and its important role in developing an educational program for our Annual Meeting. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I was at the headquarters building in Alexandria for the meetings of the Scientific Program Committee. The Education Committee develops the didactic part of our Annual Meeting program, whereas the Scientific Program Committee is charged with reviewing the new research presented. Together the two committees create the world's largest annual cancer meeting.

The work of the Scientific Program Committee is quietly heroic. This year close to 5000 abstracts were submitted to our society, covering every conceivable aspect of our field. They all need to be judged, and they all need to be organized into the many competing sessions that fill Chicago's McCormick Place. While this week’s Scientific Program Committee meeting represents the apex of these efforts, it is part of an exceptionally long process.

The process begins with the selection of committee members. The committee is a large one, as you might expect: we need to populate a good many subcommittees with the expertise required to judge the many different types (and sheer volume) of abstracts we receive. Kathy Miller, the Scientific Program Committee chair, did the heavy lifting of identifying an incredibly hard-working and thoughtful group of volunteers. Committee members perform real work: it is common for a committee member to review 200 or more abstracts. This is all done online before the committees meet face-to-face.

At the committee meeting the committee members put together the scientific program. What data deserves an oral presentation, a prestigious place in our program for presenting groundbreaking research? What data belongs in a poster discussion session, where eminent specialists explicate and critique interesting new findings? What work is important enough to put up a poster for? And, working with their Education Committee colleagues, what abstracts should populate our Clinical Science Symposia, designed to showcase and explain emerging science? These discussions are lively: what will ultimately pass the test of time isn't always obvious, and what looks flashy but ultimately lacks substance can be hard to discern. We rely on our committee members to make value judgments about medical science. We also ask them to identify discussants--typically researchers with years of clinical trials experience--who will be able to make sense of the data.

Ben Bradlee, the great editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate era, once described newspapers as the "first rough draft of history," and something similar can be said of abstracts. We do not always get it right. In my area of breast cancer, the first presentation of paclitaxel in breast cancer did not even get a poster, let alone an oral presentation: a generation of negative clinical trials in metastatic breast cancer had left researchers cynical and jaded. Less than a decade later, the same committee thought so much of the (fraudulent) high dose chemotherapy data of Werner Bezwoda that it got to the Plenary Session. We screw up sometimes. And sometimes, when we screw up, the consequences can include harm to patients. Sitting on the Scientific Program Committee is therefore a real responsibility, and one that I know its members take very seriously.

The Plenary Session is the peak of the Scientific Program at the Annual Meeting. Choosing the best four or five abstracts--literally one in a thousand--is exceptionally tough. The group charged with this responsibility argued (yes, argued) for several hours over these choices. We did so with incomplete information. Several Late Breaking Abstracts, or LBAs, are still awaiting presentation of their data to the Scientific Program Committee, and it is likely that we will be shuffling the program in the weeks to come. I have always felt that the Annual Meeting ends up being remembered for one or two great presentations. I think of imatinib for CML or GIST, trastuzumab as adjuvant therapy for breast cancer, or last year's crizotinib presentation for lung cancer. I remember sitting in the audience for those presentations and thinking, "how cool is that?" These marquee moments define the progress of our science, and point the way to a brighter future for our patients. I feel privileged to be part of a profession that generates such moments, and of a society that makes such presentations possible.

We are a very public society. In addition to our members, reporters (print, television, and now Internet) flock to the meeting from many parts of the globe. We are the premier meeting for clinical progress in cancer, and the public is quite interested in our work. At the same time as our Scientific Program Committee is meeting, our Communications Committee meets in parallel to decide which abstracts are newsworthy. Newsworthy isn't quite the same thing as scientifically noteworthy: an important negative phase III may not catch the public's attention, while an interesting abstract that touches on the economic or quality-of-life aspects of cancer care may end up being broadcast on the evening news. Mark Kris ably directs our Communications Committee, with the support and input of our ASCO staff.

That is enough for now. As always, I cannot say enough about our tremendous ASCO staff, who make this all seem (relatively) easy, or the volunteers who put so much sweat equity into the program. When you sit in the audience at the Annual Meeting, remember their hard work.


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Hope S. Rugo, MD

Mar, 18 2011 6:53 AM

someone forwarded this to me - it is really nice, and greatly appreciated by asco membership! Great work, Hope

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