Musings in Rotterdam at the ESDR

by reestheskin on 11/09/2015

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I am at the ESDR 2015 in Rotterdam. Strange sort of place, I haven’t been here before, but I guess there was a lot of war damage (the exact details of which have subsequently been explained to me by a Dutch colleague, Marcel Jonkman). Many parts of the city look like a toy town with buildings that I first saw in comic books when I was a kid. I find it hard to imagine it being a home — but then I don’t live here. On the other hand, lots of nice bars and coffee shops; and bikes. And the Dutch always seem so friendly, and possess a great sense of humour (meaning I tend to laugh, when they laugh).

As for the meeting, well… Leo Szilard, suggested many years ago that presenters should just stand up and announce their conclusions, in a sentence or two. If the audience think the conclusions reasonable, they should quickly then sit down again. On the other hand (and he was a physicist), if the conclusions sounded unreasonable, then they would need to spend time justifying their thinking (or their data). In biology, or medicine, this approach is problematic. Treatment X works better than treatment Y? Not much to say, except that this argument illustrates why so much of scientific conferences no longer consist of science. Second, even biology has so many myriad pathways that it is so hard to frame experiments as tests of hypotheses, rather than stamp collecting. Biology is just messy, and I remain amazed that we can discover anything useful at all. But we can, and we do.

There was a nice keynote by Cédric Blanpain on tumour heterogeneity. I once claimed to know something about this, but since I was reading in this area, technology has moved on. Nonetheless, at the risk of sounding like somebody who always says there is nothing new under the sun, I think many of the key questions that people were framing 25 years ago, still remain unanswered: how do we deal with molecular heterogeneity (and the drivers of tumour heterogeneity), and how do we therapeutically get round this issue? Is there a bigger problem in cancer?

As for the Szilard approach, the ESDR have tried, and it works. Short one or two sentence statements, ending with ‘if you want to find out why, visit my poster’. Neat. And posters can be fun.