The Society for Melanoma Research (SMR) 2021 annual meeting was originally slated to be a live meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana Oct. 28 - Oct. 31, but was converted to a virtual meeting due to rising Delta variant of COVID-19 cases. New biological and therapeutic insights have been made repeatedly in melanoma for the past decade. SMR brings together basic scientists and clinical investigators and challenges them to keep this momentum going. It has fostered a truly close-knit international melanoma research community. In early summer, we were all looking forward to an in-person SMR experience after a rotten 2020. I have been going to this meeting for years and it is a mid-size meeting, with enhanced interactions between established and new investigators. It was absolutely the right decision to convert this meeting to a virtual meeting given that international scope of the SMR membership. The major deficiency of a virtual meeting is that it cannot replicate the spontaneous organic connections people make during a live meeting. There are clearly more in-depth scientific discussions, and the possibility of new collaborations that can be established. The camaraderie during breaks and at dinners cannot be replaced. Interactions in the poster sessions that can lead to new career opportunities are difficult to reproduce with a virtual meeting.
Despite these challenges the meeting was a tremendous success. The mix of invited speakers and peer-reviewed oral abstracts delivered rigorous impactful science. The major benefit of the virtual meeting was that there was no chance of a single COVID-19 case. In fact, there was not even a common cold, which during the COVID-19 pandemic can also wreak havoc due to the need for quarantine, and testing. There was no travel involved, reducing the carbon footprint of the meeting dramatically. The conference ran very efficiently as there was no time wasted with speaker entrance and exits. As a speaker at this conference, to avoid technical failures, I had the chance to pre-record my talk and watch myself giving the talk. This was an interesting experience that allows you to improve how you deliver future talks. It is arguably easier to learn from each session and change from one concurrent session to another more easily than a live conference. The poster “session” was surprisingly effective in a different way, because each poster was provided in the form of a downloadable pdf, with the presenting authors also given the opportunity to post brief videos summarizing the major findings. I found that I was able to get through all of the posters and absorb the information better than in a live meeting, where I might run into friends, get distracted by ambient noise, or not be able to view specific posters due to crowds.
The SMR 2021 Plenary sessions covered new advances in immunotherapy in melanoma, newly identified resistance mechanisms to immunotherapy and targeted therapy, new targets and dormancy in the immune microenvironment, neoadjuvant therapy, and brain metastases. There were concurrent breakout sessions that allowed the presentation of top abstracts. In addition to these important topics in melanoma biology and therapy, there was an outstanding session on diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism. This included an in-depth review of the results of a survey filled out by SMR members that characterized their views on workplace racism, sexism, and imbalances in career advancement. It also included an outstanding lecture about anti-racism provided by Dr. Utibe Essien. Finally, late breaking clinical abstracts featured much anticipated clinical updates on randomized controlled trials of adjuvant immunotherapy in both stage III and Stage II disease. These positive findings truly underscored the impact melanoma research has made on patients lives.
While it is easy to get distracted in your home when attending a virtual conference, I was able to see or hear every session while getting other work and home chores done (including putting up Halloween decorations). The conference app was easy to navigate and enabled watching sessions while taking a walk, a new way to take in scientific information. In contrast, I have been to in-person conferences where I ended up attending less than 50% of the sessions because of scheduled meetings, fatigue, and catching up with old friends. In summary, while I would have loved to be toasting melanoma successes on Bourbon Street with my dear friends in melanoma research, SMR 2021 made the best of a difficult situation and delivered a superb meeting.
Dr. Amaravadi reports no conflicts of interest.
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