This week I'm adjusting to the high altitude of Denver while at the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) meeting on molecular diagnostics and cancer therapeutics. It's a great little meeting, networking opportunities are excellent and I'm learning a lot about what new cutting edge ideas are being explored.

I will be doing some highlights from each day series later in the week once I've had time to process all the information, as there is a lot to digest here.

What is interesting though, is to look at big picture trends, both in academia and basic research and also what industry are doing in their research teams, since these ideas may well get incorporated into early phase I clinical trials for validation and pilot purposes. More about this later in the week.

Although a lot of the attendees are from the diagnostics end of the business (either academic or industry), there are quite a few serious researchers and thinkers here too. Gordon Mills from MD Anderson gave one of the best talks I've seen at an opening session in a long while. David Parkinson from Nodality also laid out a strategic and thoughtful overview of how things are currently, and how they will continue to change in cancer research with new approaches. 

One thing really struck me here in Denver. While outsiders and FDA become more paranoid about conflicts of interest, it is clear to me that what we actually need is closer and more collaborative relationships between basic and clinical research in order to translate the knowledge and ideas into practice or the clinic more quickly.  To do this requires fresh ideas, a fresh approach and better communication and collaboration. 

By collaboration, I don't just mean between academia and industry, but between labs and between companies, rather than competition. Increasingly, I'm seeing smart researchers presenting data that was generated on behalf of several groups, often in different cities or even countries, each providing different skills and expertise to the research. This used to happen sporadically between friends and former colleagues, but now it's starting to become more commonplace. It's a good sign and a great way to synergies resources and bring more expertise to projects.

Industry are typically very slow to change and tend to see other companies as rivals rather than for collaborative purposes, which is a great shame given that we're all working towards the same goal: fight cancer. 

That said, there are some exciting new, albeit subtle changes afoot. When I think of cancer research, the first two industry research powerhouses I think of are Genentech, who have traditional sought strong relationships with academia and Novartis, who have the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research (NIBR) and the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF).  

More recent examples include Novartis and GSK, who appear to have been collaborating on research projects and the other major one that surprised many was the Merck-Astra-Zeneca hookup on specific, but related compounds with relevant cancer pathways.

Which brings me to Gordon Mills stirring talk on Monday evening. He made the case that this is the time for systems biology to make it's mark. Rather than looking at adding in a targeted therapy eg an EGFR, a MEK or whatever inhibitor (TKI or monoclonal antibody) to shut off one particular piece of a complex pathway, we need to start looking at a broader concept, which he called 'pathwayness'. That is, we have learned that cancer biology is highly complex and shutting off one aberrant or overexpressed protein, won't shut down the whole engine because either the cancer adapts or other parts continue to function and drive the tumour's survival.

For me, what was spooky about this well thought and well argued talk was that it was eerily similar as a concept to what Frank McCormack was describing earlier this year using PI3K as an example. Both McCormack and Mills are probably ahead of their time.

What we need to see is industry listening to what they have to say and start to think more strategically about what to do with all the inhibitors we already have out there for the 12 critical cancer drivers that Bert Vogelstein discussed at AACR earlier this year.  

Mills argued cogently that we actually have many of the potential tools we need to take a deeper systems biology approach to personalized medicine and by looking at each patients cancer biology we could potential develop a treatment approach relevant to them. He called this 'listening to what the patient tells us'.

This reminded me that recently, there was an article in Forbes about why personalized medicine is bunk, written by a MD at a VC firm. The article annoyed me, mainly for it's lack of critical thinking, fair balance or even a basic understanding of what is happening in medicine and clinical research. Rather than vent in the comments, I turned up at this AACR meeting and was greatly reassured that cancer research is in good hands and we have many excellent people and resources focused on the whole concept of matching treatment to a patients tumour. It will happen. In many ways the revolution has already begun; we just need to get better at it. Every failure tells us something new and important about what to do next.

We have the tools, but there are also a lot of hurdles and challenges to be addressed along the way, not least the regulatory side of things and a different way of thinking about testing and validating the ideas in clinical trials. The good news is that there is much needed activity going on behind the scenes at the policy level, as witnessed by the Cancer Caucus in DC today, where Harold Varmus is kicking off a new era at the NCI. I'm hopeful that the think tank will have open minds and the passion to change the way we think about cancer research.