At More than a Century Old, American Association for Cancer Research Continues to Evolve

A Conversation with Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc)

Get Permission

New technologies are being brought to bear on cancer research in general and translational research in particular. A lot of issues are of concern to us, such as how to intercept cancer at earlier stages, how to treat and prevent precancers, and how to manage all the new genomic data.

—Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc)

Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), has been Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) since 1982, and has been instrumental in launching some of the most seminal efforts of the cancer research organization. Over the past 4 years, she has helped spearhead the AACR’s scientific partnership with Stand Up To Cancer, as well as the AACR’s production of the Cancer Progress Report of 2011, which chronicled advances in cancer research over the past 40 years.

At 24 years old, Dr. Foti began her meteoric rise through the ranks of the AACR when she became the country’s youngest managing editor of a scientific journal, Cancer Research, then the flagship publication of AACR. During her tenure as CEO, the AACR’s budget has grown from about $1 million to $74 million and its membership has spiraled from 3,000 to over 33,000 basic, translational, and clinical scientists in more than 90 countries.

In a recent interview with The ASCO Post, Dr. Foti looked back on her career in scientific publishing and association management at the AACR, to provide perspective on how the field of prevention research has changed over the years.

Women in Science

How was the work of editing scientific journals back when you started on Cancer Research different from today, and how were women received when you first started working at AACR?

Cancer Research was then one of the few cancer journals in the world, and it was very small. It’s still the most highly cited cancer journal in the world. But now the editors and staff at the journal review 6,000 manuscripts per year, whereas back then there were just several hundred. The journal, of course, was much thinner then, and the editorial work was less complex.

I was very lucky in that all my mentors (including Cancer Research editor Sidney Weinhouse, PhD, at the time Dr. Foti became managing editor) took me under their wing and gave me great support. There was no discrimination. I think women in scientific publishing should get help from those whose expertise they need to develop professionally; it shouldn’t matter whether these mentors are women or men. When I became CEO of AACR, however, there were very few female CEOs of scientific or medical organizations—now there are many more of us out there, which is a good thing.

Newer Journals

The AACR now publishes seven journals containing a total of more than 27,000 scientific pages. What was the impetus behind the establishment of some of its newest journals, such as Cancer Prevention Research (begun 5 years ago) and Cancer Discovery (established last year)?

The AACR has been involved in and supportive of cancer prevention for the past 100 years. One of our founding fathers in 1907 was a cancer prevention scientist. In 1991, we published the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention to address the increasing interest in cancer prevention. Five years ago, our journals did not include many papers on the basic science of prevention. We knew that the impact of basic science on prevention would be very important going forward, so the journal Cancer Prevention Research was designed to include the full spectrum of science in this field, from lab to clinical research, including new data on genomics, imaging, and biomarkers. Cancer Discovery provides one-stop shopping for cancer researchers who want to keep abreast of what’s going on in their field and in other exciting areas of cancer research.

Earlier in my career, I thought scientists wanted to do their own thinking about the scientific literature. It is now clear, especially because of the burgeoning literature in cancer research, that scientists want the latest developments in the field brought to them with analysis and commentary from thought leaders. So Cancer Discovery has the best papers in all areas of cancer research and also has news articles and commentary. The manuscript acceptance rate is very low—we aim to keep the quality very high so that it has a high impact factor.

Chief Priorities

What do you view as some of the chief priorities for the AACR in addressing gaps in cancer prevention research?

We have to continue to strengthen the basic science of cancer prevention research and translate that science to the clinic. Nine physicians and two basic scientists founded our organization in 1907, but basic scientists now make up about half of our membership.

New technologies are being brought to bear on cancer research in general and translational research in particular. A lot of issues are of concern to us, such as how to intercept cancer at earlier stages, how to treat and prevent precancers, and how to manage all the new genomic data. One of the questions we are facing is: How do you train people to analyze the voluminous genomic data? In the future, we’ll see a great deal of progress in areas such as genomic imaging of biomarkers and information technology for analysis of genomic data sets.

Changing with the Times

How has the AACR changed since you became CEO, and what recent projects of the organization do you view as significant, both now and in the future?

We have built the AACR into a multifaceted cancer prevention organization that not only publishes cancer science and medicine, but also one that holds very important meetings in the field. We are now much more proactive in identifying scientific priorities than in the past, as well as holding think tanks and workshops that identify these priorities. We’ve increased our capacity as a research grant-giving organization through projects such as Stand Up To Cancer and others. We also view the Cancer Progress Report—first issued in 2011—as very important, and we will continue to put it out annually.

At parties, one can always hear comments and questions from the lay public about what is happening in cancer research. The big question is always: Are we going to achieve the cure? Or more accurately, will we see cures of the many diseases that we call cancer? There’s an enormous amount of education needed among the lay public, and we’re committed to helping with that effort through projects such as the Cancer Progress Report and a revamped website for the public.

Disclosure: Dr. Foti is Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for Cancer Research.