Susan B. Horwitz, PhD, describes her tenure as President of the American Association for Cancer Research as “an unusual presidency in an unusual year.” This is no exaggeration. For one thing, by the time she stepped down, she had served for 15 months—three months longer than the standard one-year term.
For another, 2003 was the first year in the organization's 97-year history that its annual meeting, scheduled to be held in Toronto in April, had to be cancelled and rescheduled. The reason, as virtually everyone in the medical and scientific community knows, was the SARS outbreak.
The new meeting took place earlier this month (July 11–14) in Washington, DC, at which time Dr. Horwitz, who is Professor and Co-Chair of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, finally turned over the presidency to Karen H. Antman, MD, Chief of the Division of Medical Oncology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Dr. Horwitz, also Professor of Cell Biology and the Rose C. Falkenstein Professor of Cancer Research, is widely recognized for her fundamental findings about the mechanism of action of paclitaxel. Her research led to the drug's development as a treatment for ovarian, breast, and lung cancers. Currently, she is working on the development of new drugs that would be effective in Taxol-resistant human tumors.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Horwitz discussed her experience as President of the oldest organization devoted to cancer research.
The paclitaxel pioneer talks about her unexpectedly long tenure as President of AACR, which included the rescheduling of the annual meeting and the con-troversy about Cornelius P. Rhoads, gives advice to young researchers, and discusses the organization&#x0027;s beginning dialogue with the FDA about chemopre-vention and surrogate endpoints.
Rescheduling the Annual Meeting
What can you tell us about the decision not to go to Toronto and the logistics of rescheduling?
“It was difficult and traumatic, but I think it is very clear that we made the right decision. As time passed, we become even more convinced that it was what we needed to do. We cancelled three days prior to the meeting that 16,000 people were planning to attend. It is a remarkable testament to the efficiency of e-mail that only 20 scientists showed up, and most of them were already traveling when the e-mails went out.
On continuing her research: “I have devoted a lot of time to the presidency, but, at the same time, I have maintained my laboratory, continued to publish, and kept up with my grant applications.”
We had spent an enormous amount of time preparing for the meeting and may have incurred a significant financial loss, but public health is more important.
Our greatest concern was for the health of our members and their families, as well as those people, especially physicians, who would be in contact with immunosuppressed patients when they returned. Even if only one cancer patient had contracted SARS, it would have been a terrible thing.
As for our rescheduled meeting, we were extremely fortunate that a brand new convention center had literally just opened in Washington, DC, and for that reason there were four open days in July. About 20% of our meeting participants, speakers, etc, who were going to attend the Toronto meeting were unable to come because of other commitments, but when those four days became available, we had to grab them.”
What do you view as your major achievements as AACR President?
“Dealing with the unexpected and having the flexibility to plan a meeting of this size. One of the things a President must do is make superb appointments, and choosing Sara A. Courtneidge, PhD, as Program Committee Chairperson was a key factor in rescheduling the meeting. She is extremely knowledgeable and flexible.
One of the things that has amazed me is how few AACR members said no when called upon, and those who have declined positions usually had a very good reason for doing so.“
Cornelius P. Rhoads Controversy
“Another unexpected issue I had to deal with concerned one of our annual awards, the AACR Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award that is given to a young scientist who has shown a great deal of potential.
Dr. Rhoads was a researcher in the 1930s who worked at Rockefeller University and also in Puerto Rico. Over the years people have expressed concern over a letter he wrote while working in Puerto Rico expressing derogatory racist ideas about the local population.
The matter came up again this year and was even more controversial. As a result, it was decided that Dr. Rhoads' name would no longer be associated with this award, and that it not be given in 2003. It will be renamed and the annual presentation will be resumed in 2004.”
First Distinguished Lectureship
“I was also pleased to inaugurate the first AACR Distinguished Lectureship. My idea was to invite to the annual meeting a very distinguished scientist whose work is important to progress in understanding cancer, but who is not necessarily thought of as a cancer investigator.
Our first speaker was James E. Darnell, MD, of Rockefeller University, who gave a talk entitled ‘Transcription Factors as Targets for Anti-Cancer Drugs.’
This a very important part of what AACR should be doing today, because the complexities of cancer require many different kinds of expertise. We're trying to bring in experts in other fields, such as mathematics, computer science, and bioinformatics, whose work will impact on our ability to cure cancer.
We have begun a dialogue with the FDA about chemoprevention and surrogate endpoints, an area of major interest for AACR. During my tenure as President, I made two visits to the FDA to discuss how our two groups can work together for the future of cancer research.”
Have you kept up your research over the past year?
“Yes, and this is very important to me. The kinds of people we want as president of our organization won't give up a year of their research.
The AACR presidency is a voluntary, unsalaried position. I have devoted a lot of time to the presidency, but, at the same time, I have maintained my laboratory, continued to publish, and kept up with my grant applications. The reason this was possible is because I had a terrific organization backing me up.
Every year the AACR President presents a scientific lecture at the annual meeting. Mine was entitled, ‘Taxol, Tubulin, and Tumors: Challenges in the New Era of Cancer Therapeutics.’”
What's new and interesting in treatment advances?
“We're changing our thinking about cancer chemotherapy from cytotoxic agents that affect all cells to more targeted individual therapies such as small molecules acting on a specific enzyme that is predominantly present in the cancer cell.
Everyone is thinking about attacking specific molecular targets, hopefully unique to the malignant cell. There is a growing realization that we have to know more about an individual malignancy in order to treat it in the best possible way.
Also we are seeing a comeback of certain agents that had been discounted. For example, monoclonal antibodies are hot again.”
Advice for Young Researchers
What advice do you have for young people who are going into cancer research?
“Become a member of AACR. Read our five excellent journals. Come to our meetings where you can do some networking and receive mentoring.
We hold sessions where we discuss how to write a first grant, how to set up a first lab, and how to write an abstract. Doing good research is wonderful, but it is not enough. You have to be able to communicate your results.
Also, if you are going to be a scientist, you have to be proactive. Become involved in seeing to it that the US has a good science policy. We all have to work on getting federal funding for research. In order to do that, we must teach our elected representatives what science is all about and how it pays off economically. Communication with every level of government is becoming more and more important.”
What are some of the lessons you have learned as AACR President?
“To be a scientist, you must be a student for your entire life, and I learned a great deal this year. I had always run a lab or a department with a dozen or so people. Leading an organization the size of AACR was different from anything I've ever done before. This year has given me a new level of confidence.
I've also learned a lot from Margaret Foti, PhD, AACR's CEO, who has been a wonderful role model.”
Any last thoughts?
“Being head of an organization like AACR is a honor because you are selected by your peers. Taking on this responsibility required a lot of time and dedication, but I have gained a great deal from the experience.
“We all have to work on getting federal funding for research. In order to do that, we must teach our elected representatives what science is all about and how it pays off economically.”
As a member of AACR for 30 years, I, along with the students and fellows in my laboratory, have learned from participating in the organization. This was my payback time.”