From EACR Member to EACR President: Interview with Edit Oláh

"It is wonderful to see the increasing number of enthusiastic young researchers"

Edit Oláh

Prof. Dr. Edit Oláh is a former EACR President and has been an EACR member for 46 years. We interviewed Professor Oláh about the history, and future, of the EACR community.

The European Association for Cancer Research is celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2018, so we decided to speak to one of our longest-standing members, Prof. Dr. Edit Oláh, about the changes she has witnessed in the cancer research community over that time.

You’ve been an EACR member since 1972. What level of your career were you at when you joined the EACR? How did the EACR help you develop and grow in your career?

I was an early-career postgraduate student and had just become involved in studies on cell proliferation and chromosome analysis at the Research Institute of Oncopathology, Budapest, Hungary and joined the Hungarian Cancer Society (MOT), and the EACR.

My first true contact with the EACR came from Dr. Mike Price who became the Secretary General of EACR in 1977. He stimulated the education and training of young European researchers (for example by setting up the Travel Fellowship Programme), creating opportunities even for scientists trapped by political regimes to join the EACR. I am privileged to have known Mike and to have worked alongside him in the EACR community for 19 years. Experiences gained within the EACR greatly helped my group in launching the research in Hungary in the emerging field of molecular cancer genetics.

Strive for excellence and enjoy what you are doing.

28 years later you went on to become EACR President in 2000. What advice would you give young researchers who wonder how they could one day reach the top level of associations like the EACR?

I never expected such an extraordinary honour. When I was a young visiting researcher at the Indiana University (Indianapolis), Professor George Weber gifted me a book with the dedication: “Discovery is your business”. I would say: Strive for excellence and enjoy what you are doing. Supporting family members, inspiring colleagues, and a friendly work environment have all helped me a lot.

You will be attending EACR25 in Amsterdam this year, where we are celebrating the EACR’s 50th Anniversary. How has the EACR Congress changed over time, since the first one you attended?

Since 1991 I haven’t missed a single EACR Congress… It is wonderful to see the increasing number of enthusiastic young researchers livening up each meeting.

My first EACR Congress was EACR-6 organized in my home town, Budapest, in 1981. The next meeting I could attend was EACR-8 in Bratislava. Since 1991 I haven’t missed a single EACR Congress and I have fond memories of them. Before 2002 these were small meetings held in university lecture halls, seaside hotels and such. Due to the sudden outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars, the venue had to be changed in just half a year and both EACR-15 in Stockholm and EACR-16 in Halkidiki were poorly attended and beset with difficulties. 2002 was the turning point, when EACR-17 was organized jointly with ASEICA in the new conference centre of Granada. This was a really multidisciplinary Congress, bringing together several hundreds of researchers and clinicians.

Today, the EACR Congress is a conference known worldwide for its scientific excellence in multidisciplinary cancer research taking cutting-edge discoveries from bench to bedside. Nowadays, the congress attracts thousands of participants. It is wonderful to see the increasing number of enthusiastic young researchers livening up each meeting.

As someone who has attended many EACR congresses over the years, why is the EACR congress unmissable?

Beyond the always excellent programme and opportunities for stimulating discussions that promote our scientific collaborations, it is important to me that here I can see my amazing colleagues and friends, whom I met and interacted with over the many years.

You have been an EACR member almost since it was founded 50 years ago. What is the biggest change you’ve noticed in the cancer research landscape over that time?

Since our Association was founded in 1968 we have seen a transformation in cancer care with the outcome that people are living longer, higher quality lives after a cancer diagnosis. This progress is a result of tremendous advances in basic and applied research.

The “must mention list” on breakthrough discoveries includes the identification of human oncogenes, tumour suppressor genes, the sequencing of human and cancer genomes  that together set the stage for targeted therapies. The discovery of cancer susceptibility genes (such as BRCA1/2) could immediately enable the identification and the personalized care of individuals at high genetic risk.

More recently, we have seen another wave of exciting basic research that resulted in the development of new drugs, including lifesaving immunotherapeutics and the expanded use of genomic data for precision medicine. There is a recent focus on the generation and analysis of “big data” from large numbers of cancer patients. The collaborative efforts of researchers, clinical investigators and computational and system biologists in large disease-based consortia and networks provide an unprecedented opportunity to make the next breakthroughs in clinical care.

Decades of cancer prevention research have identified numerous preventable causes (risk factors) of many forms of cancer, thus promising the greatest hope to conquer cancer. One of the most important recent advances for cancer prevention is provided by Professor Dr. Harald zur Hausen, a Nobel Laureate and EACR member whose seminal discoveries on cancer-causing strains of papilloma viruses in cervical cancer led to the 2006 introduction of HPV vaccines for prevention of cervical cancers, the second most common cancer in women.

And what has been the biggest change in the EACR over your 46 years of membership?

For its first decades, our Association carried out its mission solely through its biennial Congresses. While this remained the EACR’s focus, we saw an exciting expansion of mission-related priority areas in the new millennium, but first we had to overcome the existing difficulties and the painful loss of the EACR Secretary General Mike Price, in 2000.

 

It has been a wonderful experience for me to closely see how our Association has grown and strengthened over the years

Around the turn of the century the launching of the National Society Members Programme resulted in the rapid growth of the EACR’s multidisciplinary membership. These national societies have made the EACR not only bigger, but also stronger in terms of organizing the most successful conferences in partnership with them.

New activities to support the education of the next generation of cancer scientists, and the prestigious Mike Price Gold Medal Award (a decade after the introduction of the Mike Price lecture), were introduced in 2012, when a new era of expansion of EACR activities was begun, such as the development and growth of our flagship Conference Series. Let me emphasize that the growing new and existing partnerships with cancer organisations like AACR, ESMO and OECI are very important. I have much appreciated AACR CEO, Dr Margaret Foti’s tremendous help over the many years.

Many people have contributed to the success of the EACR in its vital mission. It has been a wonderful experience for me to closely see how our Association has grown and strengthened over the 25 years when I had the honour of serving the EACR in various capacities. Today, our Association is in a great position to build on the past 50 years’ progress and launch our amazing community towards another prosperous 50 years. Vivat, crescat, floreat, EACR!

Professor Edit Oláh is the founding head of the Department of Molecular Genetics at the National Institute of Oncology, Budapest, Hungary.
Thank you to Professor Oláh for this interview. Click here to read more about the EACR’s 50th Anniversary.

Are you a longstanding EACR member of many years? We’d love to hear your stories and experiences from the EACR’s history. Please contact us at magazine@eacr.org.