24 March 2021

Snap lockdown causes chaos at Lorne conference

COVID-19

Around lunchtime on the second day of last month’s Lorne Cancer Conference, the premier of Victoria announced a snap five-day lockdown, sending over a hundred conference delegates scrambling to return home before midnight.

“It was pretty crazy,” conference co-convenor Professor Mark Shackleton, the director of oncology at Alfred Health, said.

“We basically cancelled the Friday afternoon program and then transferred the vast majority of those talks onto the Saturday,” he said.

“And we spent the rest of the afternoon on Friday trying to evacuate the 140 face-to-face registrants that were present in Lorne as rapidly as possible.

“It was particularly dramatic for the interstate visitors because they had to get back across the border, either via plane or car (many, in fact, drove) before midnight.”

Conference registrants from South Australia and NSW were “last seen hurtling towards the border, trying to get into the queue”, he said.

Everyone had to get across the border by midnight. “Thankfully, they all made it,” he said.

The meeting then re-launched early on Saturday morning in a virtual form, with tweets revealing that several pet cats were also attending.

The Lorne Cancer Conference in regional Victoria is an iconic event on the primary and translational cancer researcher calendar and has been running for over three decades. 

“The event always attracts really top-notch speakers from around the country and around the world,” he said. “It’s kind of known as a place where you can go and end up in the bar with a Nobel laureate.”

There were two important conceptual themes that emerged from the 2021 conference, according to Professor Shackleton.

“Many talks spoke to the critical importance of the interaction between cancer cells and the cells in their immediate microenvironment – called stromal cells – within tumours,” he said.

The communication that exists between cells within tumours (cancer and non-cancer cells) is very dynamic and can serve to promote the growth of tumours, he said.

“But it’s therefore potentially therapeutically exploitable,” he said.

Another “really exciting talk” was delivered by Assistant Professor Uri Ben-David, a human molecular genetics and biochemistry researcher at Tel Aviv University in Israel, Professor Shackleton said. 

Assistant Professor Ben-David’s talk focused on aneuploidy (the presence of an abnormal number of chromosomes in cancer cells).

It described just how “genomically deranged” cancer cells can become as they develop within patients, acquiring degrees of genomic amplification and deletion that “you just never see in normal cells”, Professor Shackleton said.

“Aneuploidy is a really distinctive feature of many cancers and is often associated with changes in the biology of the disease as it progresses,” he said.

“But because it’s such a distinguishing feature of cancer cells, it actually presents a therapeutic opportunity because you could potentially exploit the mechanisms through which cancer cells are able to acquire (as well as tolerate) rampant degrees of genomic arrangement.”