The American Association for Cancer Research had held meetings around the world — in Japan, Singapore, and Australia — but had never ventured into the Arab Middle East until this spring, when it convened the first cancer research conference in the region. Advances in Cancer Research: From the Laboratory to the Clinic, held March 16-19 in Jordan's Dead Sea resort area, was significant for its success in bridging divides, changing perceptions, and opening new doors for cancer research.
“This meeting was unlike anything else we've done — not only was it the first one for the region, but we brought together a lot of people who had never been to cancer research meetings before,” says Jeff Ruben, director of program development at the Philadelphia-based association. And one more thing: the conference had the support of the country's King.
The conference was the brainchild of Samir Khleif, MD, a member of AACR's international affairs committee and senior investigator and chief of the cancer vaccine section at the National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Md. Khleif, who is a graduate of the University of Jordan in Amman, had already spearheaded cancer treatment initiatives in the region. In 2002, through a partnership between NCI and Jordan, he led the development of the King Hussein Cancer Center — the first and only cancer center in the Arab Middle East. Two years ago he was asked by Jordan's King Abdullah II, in conjunction with NCI, to develop a cancer and biotechnology institute in Jordan, which is now under construction.
His next goal was to bring a cancer research meeting to the region. “The Middle East is underserved in terms of access to cancer research information,” says Khleif. The AACR got a boost when the King extended his patronage to the inaugural meeting, which signaled to the Jordanian people that this was an important event. His reputation also encouraged attendees from other nations to participate. “King Abdullah is viewed as a wonderful diplomat, so it was a welcoming situation for researchers from every country,” says Sarah Robertson, PhD, AACR program administrator.
The King's support was communicated on all marketing materials, the registration forms, the program, and the signage at the meeting. (All the marketing materials were written in English, and all sessions were conducted in English.) Before the conference, Margaret Foti, PhD, MD, AACR's CEO; and a contingent of AACR officials, were invited to meet with King Abdullah II, who welcomed AACR to the country. And he sent a high-ranking deputy to address the conference participants.
Because AACR does not have many members in the region, the planners relied on Khleif's contacts in Jordan — at the cancer center, the university, the new cancer and biotechnology institute, and other organizations — to market the conference. Despite these efforts, organizers were concerned about attendance. They hoped to draw at least 200, and they exceeded expectations when 375 registered. Participants came from 38 countries. The largest contingent came from Jordan, but there was also significant representation from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Iran, and some came from as far away as Pakistan, Singapore, and India. There were a few people from the U.S. and Europe. “The goal was to get the people from the region and that's what we did,” says Ruben.
Poster Boards, Prayer Rooms
The AACR planning staff usually has a 12- to 18-month window to plan international conferences of this size; they had less than nine months to pull off this meeting.
To alleviate the need for the planners to go through the site selection process, Khleif recommended that the meeting be held at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center in Dead Sea, with the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort and Spa serving as the headquarters hotel.
Khleif also recommended a local professional congress organizer, Arab Organizers, which became AACR's eyes and ears on the ground through the planning stages. AACR's Alexa McCafferty, manager of meetings and exhibits, planned the conference from her office in Philadelphia.
The planning staff arrived three days before the conference. McCafferty was pleased that everything was under control upon arrival. “The convention center staff was great to work with,” says McCafferty. And the center's services and amenities matched those at U.S. facilities, she says.
There was one glitch. The poster boards were horizontal instead of vertical. They made do, using them as they were, but the lesson is: Don't take anything for granted, says Linda Still, CMP, director of meetings and exhibits. “Just because something is standard in one area doesn't necessarily mean it's standard in another,” she says. Another challenge: A few speakers requested Macintosh computers instead of PCs for their presentations, which are difficult to find in Jordan. Organizers advise other planners to secure Macs well ahead of time.
One cultural difference that the AACR had not prepared for was the need to provide a prayer room on-site for Muslim guests. “We did have some attendees asking where they could pray, so looking back, we probably should have had a prayer room,” says McCafferty. “We apologized that a room was not reserved specifically for this.” They did create one in an empty room at the convention center.
Back to Basics
Typically, AACR meetings focus on the latest scientific breakthroughs, but this meeting delivered a broad overview of cancer research, says Ruben. “It was designed to reach an audience that may not be up on all the latest research and had never been to a cancer research meeting before.”
However, they invited the same caliber of speakers that they bring to their meetings in the U.S., says Foti. And it was not difficult to arrange foron relatively short notice. “These speakers recognized the need to teach the region about the latest in cancer research,” she says. AACR did not pay honoraria to speakers, but it did cover their travel and lodging expenses.
Speaking the Same Language
Organizers were pleased with the response from participants. Attendees had “read articles about the science, but it's a completely different experience to have the chance to discuss it with the people who are doing that research,” says Robertson. “That kind of communication was incredibly needed and appreciated.”
The effect of the conference will continue, adds Khleif, fostering collaboration among area researchers and opening communication between local scientists and top researchers from the U.S. and Europe. “It helped create a culture around cancer research.” The attention that the conference created among not only scientists, but also the public and the press, adds impetus to the development of cancer research in Jordan. As a result of the conference's success, AACR has planned another conference for May 2010, and it is considering more meetings in Jordan in the future.
Aside from plugging educational gaps, the meeting may have helped to bridge other divides as well.
“There was an Israeli and an Iranian who had research interests in common who got together several times to exchange ideas and talk about future collaborations,” says Robertson. “That was common throughout the conference. It went across culture, across religion. They all spoke the same language: cancer research.”
AACR's Global Strategy
True, it's the American Association for Cancer Research, but in reality, AACR has become quite global. The meeting in Jordan is just one example. The Philadelphia-based association has meetings coming up in Poland, Israel, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, and Spain; and AACR has produced meetings in Australia, Singapore, and Japan. About 30 percent of AACR members are from outside the U.S.
Why is the organization expanding its horizons? Mainly because more cancer research is moving overseas, which means that more scientists in more countries need to learn the latest research and techniques. While the goal of AACR's international outreach efforts is to meet the needs of scientists around the world, this strategy also helps raise the organization's profile as an international leader in cancer research.
The exposure has boosted overseas attendance at AACR's U.S.-based annual meeting, says Linda Still, director of meetings and exhibits at AACR. At its 2008 annual meeting in San Diego, AACR drew a record 17,437 attendees, with 30 percent of them coming from outside the U.S., up a few percentage points from the previous year.
While Jordan is considered a neutral country, the conflict and war going on around it in the Middle East added an element of uncertainty for the Philadelphia-based American Association for Cancer Research when planning its first meeting there. Would there be travel issues? What would the country be like for Americans?
And since three of the four AACR staffers who attended the Jordan meeting are women, there was some concern at the outset that the women would have to make adjustments to their clothing or appearance. While in some Muslim countries women must wear burqas and other garments that cover them head to toe, there is no such mandate in Jordan. In fact, the country is focused on gender equality and empowering women, with Queen Rania Al Abdullah at the forefront of this effort. At the conference, women were free to dress as they chose.
“From my perspective, it was a lot more westernized than I thought it would have been,” says AACR's Alexa McCafferty, manager of meetings and exhibits.
Sarah Robertson, PhD, program administrator at AACR, stayed for a few days after the conference to tour the region on her own, away from the hotels and resorts. “I actually got to meet many Jordanians who weren't a part of the tourist industry and were not associated with the conference,” she says. “The people were incredibly welcoming.” While many spoke English, she says, those who didn't still knew the phrase, “Welcome to Jordan.”