ASCO Goes Ahead Online, as Conference Center Used as Hospital

Zosia Chustecka

May 11, 2020

Traditionally at this time of year, everyone working in cancer turns their attention toward Chicago, and 40 thousand or so travel to the city for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting.

Not this year.

The McCormick Place convention center has been converted to a field hospital to cope with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The cavernous meeting halls have been filled with makeshift wards with 750 acute care beds, as shown in a tweet from Toni Choueiri, MD, chief of genitourinary oncology at the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston.

But the annual meeting is still going ahead, having been transferred online.

"We have to remember that even though there's a pandemic going on and people are dying every day from coronavirus, people are still dying every day from cancer," Richard Schilsky, MD, PhD, chief medical officer at ASCO, told Medscape Medical News.

"This pandemic will end, but cancer will continue, and we need to be able to continue to get the most cutting edge scientific results out there to our members and our constituents so they can act on those results on behalf of their patients," he said.

The ASCO Virtual Scientific Program will take place over the weekend of May 30–31.

"We're certainly hoping that we're going to deliver a program that features all of the most important science that would have been presented in person in Chicago," Schilsky commented in an interview.

Most of the presentations will be prerecorded and then streamed, which "we hope will mitigate any of the technical glitches that could come from trying to do a live broadcast of the meeting," he said.

There will be 250 oral and 2500 poster presentations in 24 disease-based and specialty tracks.

The majority of the abstracts will be released online on May 13. The majority of the on-demand content will be released on May 29. Some of the abstracts will be highlighted at ASCO press briefings and released on those two dates.

But some of the material will be made available only on the weekend of the meeting. The opening session, plenaries featuring late-breaking abstracts, special highlights sessions, and other clinical science symposia will be broadcast on Saturday, May 30, and Sunday, May 31 (the schedule for the weekend program is available here).

Among the plenary presentations are some clinical results that are likely to change practice immediately, Schilsky predicted. These include data to be presented in the following abstracts:

  • Abstract LBA4 on the KEYNOTE-177 study comparing immunotherapy using pembrolizumab (Keytruda, Merck & Co) with chemotherapy in patients with metastatic colorectal cancer whose tumors show microsatellite instability or mismatch repair deficiency;

  • Abstract LBA5 on the ADAURA study exploring osimertinib (Tagrisso, AstraZeneca) as adjuvant therapy after complete tumor reseaction in patients with early-stage non–small cell lung cancer whose tumors are EGFR mutation positive;

  • Abstract LBA1 on the JAVELIN Bladder 100 study exploring maintenance avelumab (Bavencio, Merck and Pfizer) with best supportive care after platinum-based first-line chemotherapy in patients with advanced urothelial carcinoma.


However, some of the material that would have been part of the annual meeting, which includes mostly educational sessions and invited talks, has been moved to another event, the ASCO Educational Program, to be held in August 2020.


"So I suppose in the grand scheme of things the meeting is going to be compressed a little bit," Schilsky commented. "Obviously we can't deliver all the interactions that happen in the hallways and everywhere else at the meeting that really gives so much energy to the meeting," he added, "but at this moment in our history, probably getting the science out there is what's most important," he said.

Virtual Exhibition Hall

There will also be a virtual exhibition hall, which will open on May 29.

"Just as there is a typical exhibit hall in the convention center," Schilsky commented, most of the companies that were planning to be in Chicago have "now transitioned to creating a virtual booth that people who are participating in the virtual meeting can visit.

"I don't know exactly how each company is going to use their time and their virtual space, and that's part of the whole learning process here to see how this whole experiment is going to work out," he added.

Unlike some of the other conferences that have gone virtual, in which access has been made available to everyone for free, registration is still required for the ASCO meeting. But the society notes that the registration fee has been discounted for nonmembers and has been waived for ASCO members. Also, the fee covers both the Virtual Scientific Program in May and the ASCO Educational Program in August.

Registrants will have access to video and slide presentations, as well as discussant commentaries, for 180 days.

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