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With a thematic focus on the biology of aggressive cancers, UNC Lineberger’s 45th annual Scientific Symposium featured 14 talks on the latest research on pancreatic cancer, tumor microenvironments, metastatic disease and immunotherapy.

The symposium, held in person for the first time since 2019, was led by co-chairs Albert Baldwin, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor, Channing Der, PhD, Sarah Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor, Chad Pecot, MD, associate professor of medicine, and Jen Jen Yeh, MD, professor of surgery. The session chairs were Yuliya Pylayeva-Gupta, PhD, associate professor of genetics, Adrienne Cox, PhD, professor of pharmacology, and Pecot.

Jen Jen Yeh presenting research at the Scientific Symposium
Jen Jen Yeh, MD, presenting at the UNC Lineberger Scientific Symposium.

Pecot said focusing on aggressive cancers provided the opportunity to bring together leaders in the field to share their perspectives on the challenges tumor resistance and the biology of metastatic disease pose. “Tumors that become resistant to our best treatments and metastatic biology are ultimately what kill the vast majority of cancer patients. For this reason I can’t think of a more important topic for us to showcase. This is a very broad and complex problem, so it was a good opportunity to hear how many leaders in the field are tackling it.”

The symposium included talks by Paula Bos, PhD, Virginia Commonwealth University; Edna Cukierman, PhD, Fox Chase Cancer Center; Ronald DePinho, MD, MD Anderson Cancer Center; Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, MD, PhD, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Elizabeth Jaffe, MD, Johns Hopkins University; Kamila Naxerova, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital; Avery Posey, Jr., PhD, University of Pennsylvania; Mara Sherman, PhD, Oregon Health & Science University; David Tuveson, MD, PhD, FAACR, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; and Xiang Zhang, PhD, Baylor University; as well as Der, Pecot and Yeh.

More than 350 people registered for the symposium, which was held at the William and Ida Friday Center for Continued Learning in Chapel Hill. The symposium was also streamed online, making it possible for researchers from across the United States to participate remotely. At one point, 280 people, many from outside North Carolina, were logged in to the watch the symposium.

Based on this year’s experience, Baldwin expects the symposium will remain a hybrid in-person/online event. “We had strong attendance by people from the local academic community as well from biotech companies in and around Research Triangle Park. Keeping the Zoom component will make it possible for people from across the state and the country to participate when they are not able to attend in person.”

Cox said this year’s symposium featured a number of strong talks, and she was particularly interested in the presentation by Cukierman. “She showed that blocking a particular protein, NetG1, that is expressed in pancreatic cancer-associated fibroblasts even though it’s a normal brain protein, could both starve the tumor and reactivate the immune system to help kill it off,” Cox said. “And then, in an almost-throw-away point at the end, she described a new collaboration that was beginning to show exactly how the interactions between cancer cells and supporting fibroblast cells affect the response to radiation therapy. Eventually these findings will likely lead to less toxic radiation treatments.”

In conjunction with the symposium, Posey spoke at a lunch arranged for North Carolina A&T State University students who participated in the Biology of Cancer course sponsored by UNC Lineberger, UNC A&T and North Carolina Central University. Posey discussed his cancer immunotherapy research and shared his journey from growing up in a small Maryland town to becoming an academic researcher and establishing his own lab.