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Maureen Cox, a postdoctoral scholar at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital talks with geneticist and oncologist Tak Mak on Feb 6, 2019.

Moe Doiron

For Lee-Hwa Tai, a researcher in cancer immunotherapy at the University of Sherbrooke, technical expertise alone is not enough for making a genuine breakthrough. Somewhere along the line, a researcher also has to have the instincts and the tenacity to stick with an idea and see where it leads, even when colleagues are going in a different direction.

This week Dr. Tai is aiming to develop those instincts during a unique online encounter designed to connect her with the titans of her field. She is one of 44 early career researchers, including some from Canada, who have been selected for the event that organizers hope will ignite the next wave of major developments in her specialty.

“This meeting is not based on science,” Dr. Tai said. ”It’s based on connecting over how we do science.”

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The cross-generational gathering comes at an important moment for a specialty that has, over the past 10 years, managed to revolutionize the treatment of some forms of cancer by leveraging the power of the body’s own immune system to fight tumours. However, those who are leaders in immune therapy say there’s good reason to think it can do far more – if they can find ways to extend those successes to more patients and across a broader spectrum of cancers.

“There is a very large percentage of people who simply do not have a good immune response to their tumours. And we don’t yet have the answer to what that is,” said Nir Hacohen, director of immunotherapy at Massachusetts General Cancer Center in Boston and one of the organizers of the cancer immunology symposium.

Dr. Hacohen said the goal of the symposium, which is sponsored by New Brunswick’s Arthur and Sandra Irving, is to give younger researchers useful insights into how to push their science forward and benefit from the experience of those who helped establish the field. In other words, he said, “to interact together and understand where discoveries come from.”

The three-day online meeting began on Monday. Among the first research leaders to speak was Jim Allison, an immunologist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. In the 1990s, Dr. Allison helped kick-start immunotherapy by figuring out how to prevent cancer cells from fooling the body’s immune system to avoid being targeted. The discovery led to the development of checkpoint inhibitors, drugs that are designed to free up immune cells to attack tumours. In 2018 it also earned Dr. Allison a Nobel prize. But for many long years before then he was considered by many of his colleagues to be wasting his time.

“Jim Allison challenged us,” said Tak Mak, a senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto who will also be speaking at the symposium. It was Dr. Allison’s refusal to be deterred from testing his ideas that eventually allowed him to succeed, Dr. Mak said. He added that the field still needs some of the same attitude so that scientists do not adhere too closely to the paths beaten by their predecessors or become satisfied with making incremental gains.

Dr. Mak added that a new hurdle that the current generation of cancer immunology researchers faces is acquiring the right combination of breadth and depth to make headway in a field that has ballooned far beyond what it was when he and Dr. Allison were starting out. He said that he hoped the symposium would help shorten the learning curve for participants.

Shashi Gujar, a participant who is working on cancer-killing viruses at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said he saw the symposium as a starting point for fostering longer-term relationships that could transform the field.

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“We know now that cancer immunotherapy is really the future,” he said.

The symposium was originally planned as an in-person experience, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to shift to an online format. Midway through the first day, Dr. Tai said that did not prevent the meeting from feeling like a special and highly personal gathering.

“We are all sitting in our homes or offices and connecting with each other through our words, through our enthusiasm and our ideas,” she said.

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