Lisa M. Coussens, PhD, of the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, will formally assume a 1-year term as president of the American Association for Cancer Research at the organization's annual meeting in April 2022. In this interview, she offered an overview of her research and highlighted initiatives she aims to pursue during her tenure, such as boosting programs tied to education and mentoring and building a portal for imaging data.
The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 2022 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, LA, April 8–13, will be the organization's first in-person conference since COVID-19 became a household name, and Lisa M. Coussens, PhD, is thrilled.
“I'm excited to see people again,” says Coussens, who heads the Department of Cell, Developmental & Cancer Biology at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland. After more than 2 years of camera-only speaker views during presentations, typing questions into chat boxes, and other virtual event trappings, “just being able to hear great science in the same room as others and have spontaneous, organic conversations—it's a big deal.”
Coussens is also the AACR's president-elect; in New Orleans, she will formally assume the presidency of the organization for 2022–2023. To introduce herself, she spoke with Alissa Poh for Cancer Discovery, offering an overview of her research and highlighting key initiatives that she hopes to pursue during her term.
What have you and your lab been working on lately?
Our research focus hasn't changed in 20 years. We're still doing basic discovery science around chronic inflammation and cancer—how the former provides go/no-go signals to neoplastic cells. We want to understand how vulnerabilities in this communication can be targeted therapeutically.
That's just half of my lab, though. The rest is examining response and resistance pathways, mostly immune-related, within human tumors and evaluating immune correlates with patients’ outcomes in clinical trials. We've been heavily invested in multiplexed imaging platforms—some of our own, some developed by others—to quantitatively audit tumor ecosystems. This half of the group is heavily reliant on computational technologies and data science.
You must be a strong advocate for multidisciplinary communication.
I think it's important for biologists to be able to communicate with data scientists and those in other fields, and vice versa. We need to get this message across to young scientists, those in graduate and medical school, and postdoctoral fellows about the importance of diversifying their education—for instance, to think beyond the core cancer biology curriculum and seek out data science and other training. They have to learn to speak more than just their own field's language to translate and communicate their science if they want it to be impactful across multiple disciplines and have the potential for translation to the clinic.
Will you prioritize education and mentoring then during your term?
Yes. While the next generation of researchers are still trainees themselves, we must start equipping them to be well-rounded mentors in the future and be comfortable with multidisciplinary team science.
We also need to do better with reaching out to all facets of our community, providing opportunities to engage in scientific dialogue for those who might not otherwise have that exposure. As one example, the AACR has a wonderful program to bring nearby high school students to its annual meeting; I will look for opportunities to expand this educational program to include outreach to high schools not necessarily local to the annual meeting, with an emphasis on those in underserved areas where funding for science educational programs has been limited. Opportunities to support science education at this level more broadly, enabling exposure within schools, is likely to have a greater impact on nurturing the next generations toward careers in biomedical sciences.
What's another initiative you'd like to move forward?
I'm interested in the creation of common repositories for histopathologic imaging data. The explosion in technologies enabling single-cell imaging of tissues and tumors is changing the way we think about cancer ecosystems. We can now spatially analyze cell identity in tumor sections, reveal cellular complexity of tumor neighborhoods, and infer functionality of those cells based on their phenotype, proteins they express, or spatial locations. In support of these technologies, there has also been development of many software application systems for quantitative analyses. The fact remains, however, that there is not a common repository for these resources that enables data storage with mining capabilities along the lines of what is now possible with The Cancer Genome Atlas or the AACR's Project GENIE [Genomics Evidence Neoplasia Information Exchange] data. In my own lab, we have terabytes of images of numerous tumor types with quantitative analysis auditing leukocyte lineages and cellular phenotypes.
What happens to this data when labs retire? It would be truly unfortunate if it got lost in the ether and couldn't be leveraged by others. Now is the time to work with funding agencies to create what the field will need so that these invaluable datasets can be preserved for further exploration and hypothesis generation and testing.
Would such a portal have to be built from scratch?
Not necessarily. The Human Tumor Atlas Network and similar groups have been working toward this goal, as has the NIH. Collaborating with them would be one of my goals, as would aligning with the journals to start encouraging—at some point requiring—upload of imaging datasets and metadata to these common portals so that additional mining could be achieved—analogous to the uploading of nucleic acid sequence data to publicly available portals.
Think about Project GENIE or The Cancer Genome Atlas—how these were birthed and the critical communities that had to come together so that relevant datasets were not only uploaded into a common framework, but also accessible and useful. We could take a similar path. This type of a repository would not have to be limited to cancer; cellular complexity and understanding how tissue ecosystems are impacted during any disease process is a critical component of understanding human health and disease.
Realizing this goal will involve bringing many people from multiple disciplines together. I would like to use my platform as president of the AACR to facilitate this effort because it would meet a significant need in our community.