Jim Woodgett, who runs the University Health Network micro-array center of the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto, is not attending the annual American Association of Cancer Research meeting this year.
Although he went to last year’s event in Washington, DC, he told BioArray News he has a preference for smaller meetings.
The AACR gathering is anything but small. On Saturday, some 15,000 scientists will no doubt create a crowd at the registration booths of the Orlando (Fla.) Convention Center for the five-day event, which runs under the theme of “Information Integration for Innovation.”
Last year, the 94th annual meeting of the group was originally scheduled for April in Toronto, but was first cancelled because of concerns about SARS, and then postponed until July and held in Washington, DC.
For the microarray industry, this appears to be one of the most important events in the first quarter — based on the attendance of a large group of companies — Affymetrix, Agilent, Illumina, TeleChem International, Expression Analysis, and MWG Biotech — setting up booths among the more than 400 expected exhibitors.
The agenda of the show includes 32 symposia, 55 Meet-the-Expert Sunrise Sessions, 13 forums, and 25 educational sessions and methods workshops.
Just typing the term “micro-array” into the search engine of the meeting’s online agenda planner causes an electronic hiccup, as the software will tell you that it limits its response to the first 200 records available. There are more there, to be sure. (See AACR papers, page 6.)
There is no question that microarray technology, which has been available for a decade, is an important and widely accepted tool in cancer research labs. But while it has yielded an ocean of data and insights into the complexities of the disease, benefits from its use have yet to make any significant impact in the clinic. Scientists and regulators are debating just exactly what scientifically constitutes a valid gene expression biomarker pattern, and at what point a microarray analysis-based prediction can be helpful in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease.
Meantime, in the US, cancers are expected to kill 500,000 people this year and another 1.3 million new cases will be diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society.
Microarrays are still a work in progress, with expense topping a laundry list of hotly debated shortcomings ranging from anemic reproducibility to dissonance in platform-to-platform concordance.
One listing is that of the use of microarray technology by a team of 30 researchers who in 2000 identified two types of lymphoma that look the same under the microscope, but respond very differently to standard therapy.
Another milestone cited by ACS came in 2002 when Stephen Friend used microarray technology to successfully predict which node-negative breast cancer patients will go on to develop metastasis and thus benefit from aggressive adjuvant therapy.
Breast cancer, which ACS estimates will kill 40,000 women this year, with another 215,000 new cases predicted, is a topic at the focus of at least eight microarray-related poster sessions at the meeting.
Another is angiogenesis. Judah Folkman, the director of surgical research at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School, is regarded as the guru of anti-angiogenesis treatment, which uses drugs to cut off the blood supply of a tumor, attacking the cells of cancer, but not the healthy ones.
Folkman will speak Saturday afternoon on cancer biomarkers, and again on Monday. Additionally, two papers he co-authored will be presented at the conference.
Wei Zhang, the director of the cancer genomics core laboratory at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said his group will also present a poster on angiogenesis, among two posters the group had accepted.
Zhang — author of the just published book, Microarray Quality Control, written with Ilya Shmulevich, and Jaakko Astola (John Wiley and Sons) — told BioArray News that his group has published research that detailed the discovery of a gene, Cd36, a vessel marker, which is overexpressed only in CD-positive lymphoma. This gene might provide insight on the molecular mechanisms underlying angiogenesis.
“If we can microdissect the vessel cells from different tumors, [we can] then profile gene expression to look for tumor type-specific gene expression,” he said. “If we can find those genes, potentially, they can serve as a target for anti-angiogenesis therapy.”
Zhang clearly is a proponent of microarray technology, but qualified it as just one “powerful” tool in a kit for cancer researchers.
“Without microarrays we are just probing in the dark,” he said. ”Although, really, we are still probing in the dark, even with the microarray. But without the microarray, it is very random.”
High-throughput technologies, genomic and proteomic, Zhang said, are allowing cancer researchers to move from a local view to one of global perspective.
“With the high-throughput measurement of gene expression and protein expression, we can really start to understand how genes communicate with each other in normal cells and tumor cells,” he said. “In cancer there may be some major genetic mutations, but all those mutations will cause system changes. We know a lot about signal transduction pathways, but it still is very local. Without microarray data, it is hard to understand the system.”