Each year, we dedicate this January/February issue of The Hematologist to our Contributing Editors’ summaries of the “Best of 2020.” They review developments over the past 12 months and choose the most groundbreaking, impactful, or paradigm-changing publications or research trends. Among those we highlight here are the heterozygous impacts of mutations of tumor protein p53, illuminating research on the relationship between the human complement and coagulation systems, and progress in gene therapy for sickle cell disease. For me, at least, it is immensely gratifying to see that despite the widespread shutdown of research labs, and despite the diversion of attention, resources, and energy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year brought concrete progress for our patients.
Last month, for the first time ever, no one physically attended the ASH annual meeting. During the early part of 2020, the planning committees hoped that wouldn’t be the case. But by August it was clear that any kind of in-person meeting was untenable. And so, ASH launched its first virtual annual meeting, and more than 30,000 people showed up. While many of us sorely missed the chance to hobnob with colleagues during this traditional educational retreat, there were so many positives. Social media, for one, was full of compliments (I have stolen, edited and anonymized a few here):
Kudos … you can catch things you missed later! It’s like ASH has gone Netflix or is it ASHflix!
Lessons learned from virtual #ASH20: (1) I’m not getting any exercise, I used to record 15-20K steps during ASH previously. (2) I used to waste a lot of time outside the sessions. Attending way more sessions now. (3) I am missing friends and colleagues a lot!
Major, unanticipated, benefit of #ASH20 being virtual — no more FOMO - if something pops up on Twitter that tells me I’m in the wrong session — the talk of interest is only a click, not a mile, away...
Benefit of virtual #ASH20 is greater engagement from colleagues from lower- and middle-income countries — puts innovations into sobering perspective; for example, we are discussing CRISPR-based cell therapies while several countries don’t have access to basic drugs like HMAs #GlobalHealthDisparities
One of my favorite parts of this virtual #ASH20 experience...seeing speakers in the scientific sessions have an almost “normal” conversation with each other. Amazing to watch this expertise come together to talk about different aspects of the questions. #ASHFromHome
For those of us who are accustomed to ASH’s professionalism in planning and hosting meetings, the fact that the experience was largely free of technological glitches was unsurprising. What was remarkable, however, was how open we, as a community, have been to a new format for learning and socializing. Who knew that we would be so willing to accept change, even when it occurs in something as ingrained and beloved as our traditional annual meeting?
In my mind, another major notable event that occurred at the annual meeting, just as it occurred throughout the nation last year, was the calling out of structural racism and the impact that it has on our patients. In medical school, I remember clearly the emphasis placed on the correct naming of a condition and how naming a condition is the first step toward therapy. We have certainly known for decades that health disparities manifest in hematologic conditions. By choosing for the Plenary Scientific Session a study about the effects of race on acute myeloid leukemia outcomes, and by spotlighting health disparities in other sessions as well, ASH called attention to a condition that itself needs therapy. As Dr. Chancellor Donald stated in his introduction of the session’s sixth abstract, “Racial health disparities usually result from an unequal distribution of power and resources.” This statement names the larger problems we need to solve, as physicians and as humans. Now we are called to develop, test, and institute interventions.
No one can dispute that this has been a catastrophically tragic and frightening year. Yet, this is also a year of remarkable successes. This year has seen safe and effective vaccines developed and deployed with mind-boggling rapidity. We have continued to see research contributions in hematologic conditions despite circumstances that, at times, seem insurmountable. We have adapted to new ways of learning and communicating, and we as a community have arrived at a public awareness of our shortcomings and all the work we still have to do. Like many of you, I am thrilled to be putting 2020 in the rearview mirror, but I think we can also look back and be proud of what may grow from this sad, strange, and inspiring time.
Dr. Michaelis indicated no relevant conflicts of interest.