November 5, 2013 - When the American Society of Hematology (ASH) was founded in 1958, hematology was a minor specialty within internal medicine. The first ASH meeting was small - maybe 300 people - but the attendees were passionate.
They were fueled by the dismal outcomes facing people with blood diseases. Without an understanding of the root causes of conditions like hemophilia, sickle cell disease, and leukemia, doctors had few treatment options. Most cases were fatal.
To the attendees at the 1958 ASH meeting, the world of hematology today would have seemed like science fiction.
Then a revolution began. Over the next five decades, we witnessed the dawn of the genomics era and the information age, as well as the birth of biotechnology and with it the rise of personalized medicine. Countless scientific and technological advances fundamentally redefined surgery, medicines, diagnostics, and biomedical research.
At the forefront of a movement
Hematologists are often among the first to embrace change. For example, using new microscope techniques in the 1950’s, scientists studying chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) discovered one of the first links between a chromosomal abnormality and a disease. Researchers later identified the exact culprit (a piece of one chromosome swapped, or translocated, into another), paving the way for the first medicine targeted at this molecular defect.
Similarly, hematologists capitalized on early advances in protein isolation and genetic engineering (cloning). This led to recombinant clotting proteins for the treatment of bleeding disorders, as well as proteins to stimulate hemoglobin production.
Hematologists also tested new combinations of chemotherapies in people with blood cancers, leading to markedly better survival rates. And early research on antibodies led to new targeted treatments for blood cancers. During my time as a hematology fellow, I was constantly inspired by my physician colleagues who worked so fearlessly at the forefront of medicine.
Turning passion into practice
From its earliest days, ASH has been a reflection of this pioneering attitude. While many other meetings focused only on scientific laboratory research, or only on clinical practice, ASH has rejected these barriers. That legacy continues today, bringing diverse experts together so the best of science can quickly be put into practice and become the best of medicine.
For us at Genentech, the mission of ASH resonates deeply. We are inspired by the idea that advances in medicine should be driven by advances in science. It’s actually our founding principle.
I’ll never forget my first ASH meeting in 1990 in Boston. Sandra Horning sat next to me on the convention shuttle bus. We talked about our shared vision of improving the lives of people with blood cancers. All these years later, Sandra and I are working side by side at Genentech, helping to develop the next generation of targeted medicines.
We’re proud to say that because of a deep molecular understanding of blood cancers, we were able to help develop the first therapeutic antibody for cancer – specifically, for a form of lymphoma. And we’re continuing to look deeper into the science, searching for biomarkers, engineering better antibodies and challenging the clinical status quo.
Today, many blood diseases that were once considered uniformly fatal can be managed with medicines created through our understanding of the science. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I believe we’re making tremendous progress. I see the proof year after year at ASH.
This year and next
This year’s meeting is already generating a lot of buzz. All eyes are on blood cancers, especially chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Blood cancers have been a focus of FDA’s breakthrough therapy designation, and we’ll be seeing a lot of exciting new data from these investigational medicines.
The treatment landscape for blood cancers is shifting rapidly, and ASH is going to be at the center of these changes.
The future is bright. What began as an “American” society today brings together the very best of clinical and scientific research from all around the world. Attendance at this year’s meeting is expected to far exceed 20,000 (quite a leap from the original crowd of 300!).
I am personally pleased to have been part of the ASH journey for many years. And while it’s impossible to predict what future breakthrough might again change the face of medicine, I will say that if history is any indication, it’s more than likely that hematologists will lead the way.
Be sure to check back at www.gene.com/ASH2013 for more perspectives on hematology and this year’s ASH meeting.