By Sharon Ricks
More than 150 scientists from 10 countries converged on Natcher conference rooms recently to participate in an NIH conference featuring experts from all fields of mammary biology.
"Breast Development Physiology and Cancer" covered everything from hormonal control of maternal behavior to the roles of the cell cycle, matrix proteinases and the bcl-2 gene in breast cancer, as well as new gene cloning technologies. It was sponsored by NIDDK, NCI, NHGRI, ORWH and DCRT.
Dr. Lothar Hennighausen
"This was quite exciting," remarked Dr. Lothar Hennighausen, chief of the developmental biology section in NIDDK's Laboratory of Biochemistry and Metabolism and organizer of the conference. "Very often meetings just focus on one aspect, but for the first time, we had 27 speakers discussing key technologies and research developments that feed into breast development, physiology and cancer."
NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus
NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus
If breast cancer is a biologically complex disease, the speakers put a good number of puzzle pieces on the table. NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus discussed gene interactions in mammary development, tumorigenesis and the Wnt-1 gene family. Dr. Margaret McCarthy of the University of Maryland gave a talk on hormonal control of maternal behavior. NLM's Dr. Michael Ackerman shared his work on a digital image library for breast visualization. And Dr. Marc Lippman of Georgetown University Medical School shared new treatments for breast cancer using antagonists to the epidermal growth factor receptor, a member of a "superfamily" of proteins linked to breast cancer.
Technology was also a hot topic. NCI's Dr. Lance Liotta discussed his use of laser dissection technology for gene discovery and his creation of an Internet library of cancer-causing genes. NHGRI's Dr. Jeff Trent explained his work on microchips and DNA chips where he displays thousands of DNA clones and analyzes gene expression patterns in human cancer. NLM's Dr. David Lipman discussed using supercomputers to analyze genes, and Dr. Priscilla Furth of the University of Maryland Medical School talked about the development of transgenic models that allow identification of molecular steps in breast cancer progression.
The conference itself was a technological coup, since it was organized on the Internet. The "Biology of the Mammary Gland" Website, the first interactive site of its kind, was created by Hennighausen and DCRT's Jai Evans in 1995. By accessing http://mammary.nih.gov/conference97, potential participants could print the event poster, register, reserve a hotel room, sample the entertainment planned, and submit abstracts at the push of a button or two. The only things that weren't downloadable, joked Hennighausen, were the checks and the T-shirts. "Next time," he quipped. Chris Vargas of DCRT's Scientific Computing Resource Center and NCI's Margaret Fanning helped organize the conference.
News of the conference reached interested mammary biologists in Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Israel, Korea, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom as well as the United States. Seventy-five percent of the participants were from outside NIH. Forty abstracts were submitted for poster sessions and eight were chosen as additional short talks.
"Biological sciences have a bright future on the Web," said Evans, who served as Webmaster for the conference, setting up the server and registration databases. "The Web is and will continue to be the method of choice for worldwide dissemination of scientific information." Hennighausen agrees. Lectures from the conference have triggered creation of the first electronic mammary gland biology textbook on the web. "
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