AACR Annual Report 2020

A Year of Resilience and Innovation

The story of the AACR has always been a story of resilience and innovation. From its 11 founders in 1907 to its 47,000 members today, the AACR has overcome countless scientific, logistical, and financial challenges in its efforts to advance discovery and improve the lives of cancer patients—and all patients. Its resilience and capacity for innovation, which have been forged over the AACR’s 113 years of driving scientific progress, were sorely tested in 2020, as the AACR—and the world—faced an unprecedented threat to global health.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak grew into a global pandemic in the early months of the year, national and local governments restricted travel and nonessential gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. As cancer centers and hospitals placed limitations on visits, cancer patients and clinicians were forced to weigh the benefits of continuing therapy against the risks of exposure to the virus. Further, the closure of laboratories worldwide disrupted the efforts of cancer scientists—especially young investigators—to develop the next generation of lifesaving cancer treatments.

Since 1907, the AACR’s priority has been to prevent and cure all cancers. When confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, our organization pursued dual priorities: mitigating the upheaval within the cancer community while also working to eliminate the cause of that upheaval. Faced with existential challenges, the AACR leadership, staff, and membership responded by innovating across several fronts:

  • Scientific Programs: Move to Virtual Format. At the beginning of the year, the AACR had scheduled a robust slate of scientific conferences and educational workshops for 2020, addressing topics across the full spectrum of cancer science. Eight in-person events were held in the first two months of the year, but as the emerging pandemic made live meetings impossible, the AACR staff worked with the program committees to convert as many of the remaining programs as possible to a virtual format. Unfortunately, logistical challenges and the immersive nature of the programs precluded the possibility of holding some conferences and workshops online. However, a total of 29 programs were held in 2020, including a newly scheduled virtual conference on COVID-19 and cancer (see below).
  • March and April 2020: Advocating for Science-Based Policy. On March 30 and April 3, respectively, the AACR Board of Directors sent letters on behalf of its 47,000 members to Congress and the White House. The Board thanked the congressional leaders, President Trump, and Vice President Pence for passing the CARES Act and called on them to take immediate steps to alleviate the COVID-19 public health emergency while protecting cancer patients and ensuring the ongoing vibrancy of the cancer workforce.
  • April and June 2020: Virtual AACR Annual Meeting. On March 10, just seven weeks before the start of the AACR Annual Meeting 2020 in San Diego, the AACR Board of Directors made the difficult decision to terminate the in-person meeting. While a live meeting was not possible, the Board decided that the clinical trials and other cutting-edge research scheduled for presentation at the meeting needed to be shared as soon as possible. Led by 2019-2020 AACR President Elaine Mardis, PhD, FAACR, and Annual Meeting Program Chair (and 2020–2021 President) Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, FAACR, the AACR staff rapidly adapted a significant portion of the scientific program to a virtual format presented April 27-28. A second virtual edition of the Annual Meeting held June 22-24 featured an opening plenary session, scientific award lectures, and a comprehensive educational program.

    The virtual meeting—which included a plenary session featuring clinicians and researchers from China, Italy, France, Spain, and the U.S. sharing their early findings on outcomes for patients with cancer and COVID‐19 infections—was made freely available in order to connect and inspire the cancer community during a difficult time. The community responded in unprecedented numbers, as the meeting attracted more than 80,000 unique attendees from 141 countries. The rapid turnaround, cutting-edge science, and enormous audience made the Virtual AACR Annual Meeting a watershed moment in the history of the cancer field, setting a standard for all future virtual scientific meetings.
  • April 2020: Scientific Publishing Resources. When the pandemic began forcing the shutdown of scientific institutions around the world, the AACR Scientific Publishing program took action to ensure continued access to critical information for the cancer research community. When the dates of the virtual Annual Meeting were announced, the AACR also made its complete collection of scientific journals available free to everyone through the end of the meeting. Further, in an effort to foster interaction among scientists impacted by laboratory shutdowns, AACR journal editors launched a Virtual Journal Club, inviting high-impact authors to discuss their recent papers published in AACR journals.
  • May 2020: COVID-19 and Cancer Task Force. Just after the first virtual Annual Meeting, the Board of Directors created a new task force to focus the AACR’s scientific expertise on the threat of COVID-19. Chaired by Dr. Ribas, the task force was charged with recommending scientific and policy priorities for COVID-19 and cancer; evaluating COVID-related projects for potential AACR involvement; and developing new AACR initiatives to address the pandemic.
  • May 2020: AACR-FDA Listening Session. While educating the scientific community about COVID-19 and its impact on cancer care was a major focus throughout 2020, the AACR also supported patients and advocates with critical information about the pandemic’s effects on their lives. On May 27, the AACR partnered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to host a webinar to educate patient advocates about cancer clinical trials during the pandemic and about the recently issued COVID-19 Related Guidance Documents for Industry, FDA Staff, and Other Stakeholders.

    Featuring opening remarks from Richard Pazdur, MD, director of the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence, the session answered questions from the AACR’s patient advocacy community about the short- and long-term impact of COVID-19 on cancer clinical trials, including protocol deviations, suspended trials, FDA’s Reauthorization Act (FDARA) and RACE Act, disparities in enrollment, and telehealth.
  • July 2020: AACR Virtual Conference on COVID-19 and Cancer. The first initiative launched by the new COVID-19 and Cancer task force, this virtual conference was held July 20–22 and featured a keynote address from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, MD. Leading experts presented emerging data in basic, clinical, and epidemiologic research related to COVID-19 and cancer, including the status of vaccine and diagnostic development, the repurposing of cancer drugs to treat COVID-19, and risk factors and comorbidities. Chaired by task force member (and AACR President-Elect) David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD, FAACR, the meeting also addressed the impact of the pandemic on cancer patients, including health inequities and disparities, the feasibility of telehealth, and best practices for bringing patients safely back to the clinic.
  • October 2020: Virtual Patient Advocate Forum. On October 1, the AACR Survivor and Patient Advocacy program hosted a virtual forum for cancer survivors on COVID-19 and cancer. Moderated by Anna D. Barker, PhD—founder of the AACR Scientist↔︎Survivor Program—the forum brought together experts from academia and industry to discuss the state of COVID-19 science, how the cancer community has adapted to ensure that patients can safely continue essential care, and vaccines and therapies currently under development. The session also featured a patient advocate’s firsthand perspective on the impact of the pandemic on care and quality of life. This session was the first in a new series of AACR Survivor and Patient Advocacy webinars designed to inform and empower patients with cancer.

AACR Patient Advocate Forum: COVID-19 and Cancer