16th St. Gallen International Breast Cancer Conference

Intro text: 

Interview with Professor Michael Gnant, Organising Conference Co-Chair


In March 2019, the 16th edition of the St.Gallen International Breast Cancer Conference will take place in Vienna, Austria. Held every two years, the congress brings together breast cancer experts from all around the world, and the consensus recommendations they generate on the optimal treatment of early breast cancer are highly respected around the globe.

The St.Gallen Conference represents years of great collaboration and is a renowned example of an international initiative in the breast cancer research arena. Since its creation, numerous BIG members have been involved as faculty members and in the consensus panel.

BIG Headquarters had the great pleasure to speak to Professor Michael Gnant, Organising Conference Co-Chair. For many years, Dr Gnant was a prominent member of BIG’s Executive Board, until his last term as Treasurer ended in June of this year, after 14 years of service in the board. He is also President of the Austrian Breast & Colorectal Cancer Study Group (ABCSG), based in Vienna.

What is special about the 2019 St. Gallen programme and the consensus meeting?

There are many special properties of the St. Gallen Consensus Meeting, of which two are most important from my personal perspective: first, this is the one “global” meeting in Europe with the maximum attendance by US leaders in the field – no other meeting attracts that many globally renowned opinion leaders. This is why ASCO is now a cooperating partner of SG-BCC in Vienna, which leads to what is likely to be the ultimate state-of-the-art presentation in the different areas of clinical and translational breast cancer research. Second, despite the Consensus process clearly being defined as an “opinion”-based one, the clinical impact on standard of care definitions around the globe is massive: in numerous countries, the results of the Consensus voting, based on the bundled interpretation and clinical experience of the extensive line-up of thought leaders, constitutes the state of the art.

The first edition of the St. Gallen meeting took place in 1987. We are now about 30 years later and a lot of research is currently focused on the treatment of advanced, incurable breast cancer. What are the most burning questions that still need to be answered and standardised in early disease?

While a number of fascinating areas are being addressed in advanced disease research, it is in the EARLY breast cancer setting where we address “cure”! Ultimately, this is what patients and society expect from us as a breast cancer community. Moreover, a much larger number of patients and families are affected by the challenges of early breast cancer, including long-term risk of relapse, treatment side-effects, and associated consequences for their personal well-being.

One of the highlights of the St. Gallen meeting is its consensus session on the optimal primary treatment of early breast cancer, the conclusions of which are then published in Annals of Oncology. How does the conference team prepare such a renowned and eagerly awaited session, from the panel composition to the question catalogue?

Many months, actually years, of extensive preparation go into this highlight of SG-BCC: the candidate questions for the Consensus voting are drafted by the Conference chairmen, and then developed together with the panelists – keeping the most recent scientific developments in mind –, also already having the usually long-awaited manuscript in mind. Also, the composition of the panel needs to combine both experience and high-potential scientific “newcomers”, and to maintain a global regional balance in order to meet the attendees’ high expectations.

How do you expect the conference to evolve in the next decade?

Since SG-BCC in Vienna is such a successful format, changes have to be applied with caution and in a sensible way – “never change a winning format”! Also, the central question of “how to apply scientific innovation in daily practice” will never be outdated. Clearly, thoughtful amendments of the faculty and panel – involving younger clinical scientists who will be future leaders – are programmed for the coming years, as well as the evaluation of new digital tools for the congress.

For how long have you been involved in the organisation of the congress, and what does your role as Organising Conference co-Chair entail?

I have been serving as part of the SG-BCC faculty for more than a decade, and since its move to Vienna in 2015, also take responsibility for the organisation, set-up, and the logistics around it. Together with the two other organising co-chairs, Beat Thuerlimann and Hans-Joerg Senn (who founded the Conference, and still serves as the “Spiritus Rector” of our team), we invest quite a lot of energy into these preparations. Fortunately, the chairs are supported by an experienced and marvelous team, both at the SONK Foundation and the local congress organiser.

For the third time, the St. Gallen conference will be held in Vienna, a city that you know very well and that is a real treasure of culture and history. What would be your three must-see or must-do experiences in the city?

We certainly meet for the scientific exchange and the common goal of translating new scientific results into standard-of-care benefits for our patients around the world. However, having this interaction in the wonderful environment of Vienna can provide a stimulating and creative environment. Personally, I would recommend to just set time aside for a walk (in Vienna, most sights can be reached by walking, and the public transportation system is excellent!) through the center of Vienna, enjoying the mixture of history and modern urban culture. Also, a visit to one of the opera houses, concert halls, or numerous theaters is a must. Finally, one may want to enjoy the hilly outskirts of industry-free Vienna, with their vineyards and ancient suburbs, potentially reflecting on the discussed science at a “Heurigen”*....

More information about the 16th St. Gallen International Breast Cancer Conference can be found here.

* Typical Austrian wine tavern