Peter Mac researchers feature in this week’s American Association of Cancer Research program, which is expected to attract up to 30,000 clinicians and researchers worldwide.

The usually glittering event has gone virtual for 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the seriousness of the science is on full display, across the two week program from April 10-15 and then during the upcoming second week from May 17-21.

Peter Mac’s Professor Mark Dawson was invited to present his lab’s work in one of the opening plenary talks, an honour he describes as potentially a ‘once in a career’ event.

He will explore the ways by which the same cancer genome can behave differently in his talk, titled ‘Epigenetic mechanisms of malignant clonal dominance and immune evasion’.

While genetic mutations are important, not all cancer behaviour can be explained by the genome itself and non-genetic features can profoundly influence cancer outcomes.

Professor Mark Dawson
Professor Mark Dawson

Professor Dawson will share as yet unpublished data in the talk, which has implications for future cancer treatments – with drugs potentially being used to negate these epigenetic features and working in conjunction with immunotherapy and other cancer treatments.

In another session, Peter Mac’s Professor Ricky Johnstone has brought together experts from Chicago and Boston to discuss the impact of cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs) in cancer.

As session chair, and the leader of the talk titled: ‘Same-same but different: Distinct roles for CDKs in regulating transcription and tumour cell growth and survival’, Professor Johnstone will discuss how drugs targeting these CDKs can be used as anti-cancer agents.

Professor Ricky Johnstone
Professor Ricky Johnstone

Tumor cells “rewire” normal gene expression programs and CDK inhibitors can be used to re-align these programs to a more normal state which the cancer cells cannot tolerate.

In another oral session with immense implications for cancer patients, Professor Sarah-Jane Dawson will present on how liquid biopsies – or blood tests – could be refined to achieve earlier diagnosis, or better tailored treatments for cancer.

These tests can detect small fragments of cancer DNA in a person’s blood – known as circulating tumour DNA.

And now Professor Dawson and her colleagues are working to improve the sensitivity of such tests, to check for any remaining cancer at the end of treatment and to better adjust treatment programs for individuals.

Professor Sarah-Jane Dawson
Professor Sarah-Jane Dawson

Professor Dawson says the ultimate aim is to improve and better tailor treatments with this knowledge, a concept which is now being tested through clinical trials.

“The only way that these tests will be adopted is if we can actually prove they produce better outcomes for patients,” she says.

The full program for the America Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2021 is available at