Spotlight on ECTRIMS – A junior doctor perspective.

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I wrote this satirical piece following my experiences of ECTRIMS last year – hope you enjoy!

In early October of this year, I
was fortunate enough to attend the 29th Congress of the European
Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ECTRIMS) and the 18th
Annual Conference of Rehabilitation in MS (RIMS) in Copenhagen, Denmark. During
my final year at medical school, I undertook a research project at the
Institute of Neurology and an abstract I had submitted to ECTRIMS was accepted
for a poster presentation.

ECTRIMS was to be my first
experience of an international scientific conference. I was excited about
participating in this prestigious event but also nervous at the prospect of
being asked difficult questions by stern-looking professors with bow-ties during
my designated ‘Poster Session’. 

ECTRIMS was apparent from the moment I set foot
on the airplane at London Gatwick. I began to  spot other people carrying poster
tubes; looking anxious but seemingly relieved that they had been allowed to
carry the fruits of their endeavour on-board despite the budget airlines strict
rules on cabin baggage dimensions. The conference was to be held in the Bella
Center located 6 kilometres south of Copenhagen’s city centre. As I entered the
arrivals area of the airport I realised I must have made a mistake; was the
conference being held at the airport itself? Hundreds of attractive-looking
people were holding up placards from pharmaceutical companies ready to welcome
in delegates to ECTRIMS 2013. Scuffles erupted as one drug company attempted to
reach the front barrier in place of another. As I scanned the various placards
for my own name, it dawned on me that the house-officer from Hammersmith
Hospital was not to be chauffeur-driven to the conference; he would have to
take the Metro.   

As I entered the Bella Center, I
was struck by the scale of the conference and the sheer number of delegates.
There was a palpable air of excitement as colleagues reunited and caught-up on
recent news. I had arranged to meet my supervisor at one of the drug company’s
‘Hospitality Suites’. I could see his look of disdain as I approached
ten-minutes late; one hand filled with free pens, the other clutching a  pharma ice-cream,
my neck seemingly strained by a garland of USB sticks and a delegate rucksack balanced
on my forehead. After a brief discourse, we arranged to meet the following day
after the Plenary Session which would include a ‘Welcome to Copenhagen’ speech
given by Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark and a ‘Cultural Feature’. Neither of
these features disappointed. Queen Margarethe II, a patron of the Danish MS
Society gave an inspirational speech emphasising the economic and social burden
of multiple sclerosis (MS). This was followed by a ‘Cultural Feature’; a
deafening barrage of drums followed by the tingle of glockenspiels.

As the conference progressed, I
enjoyed attending various lectures, teaching sessions and Satellite Symposia
which provided a broad overview of the latest developments in MS research.
Naturally, some sessions were better than others, but overall and in my humble
opinion I felt the standard was exceptionally high. As time went on, the
nervous anticipation for my own poster session grew, made worse by the fact my
poster had been short-listed for a prize and hence stood below an enormous red
rosette with the words ‘top poster score’
inscribed within it. I began to imagine worst-case scenarios. What if my
inability to answer a question was reported to my seniors? Worse still, could
an interested bystander one day be on an interview-panel cross-examining me for
a specialty post? As it turned out, the time flew by and I enjoyed answering
the questions posed to me. I was flattered that people took an interest in my
hard work and I was given ideas for further studies.

Prior to attending ECTRIMS, I was
informed that as a shortlisted candidate for a poster prize, I could be phoned
on the penultimate evening of the conference to be told I had won one of five
awards. This would mean giving a short presentation on the final day of the
conference and receiving a stipend for my hard endeavour. I was sure to keep my
phone on the ‘loud’ setting as I pondered how I would spend my winnings.
Perhaps I would put it towards the purchase of an emblematic piece of Danish
furniture. Better still, a year’s supply of Danish Butter Cookies. The evening
progressed, and I began to convince myself that there must be a fault in my
mobile phone but the other calls I was receiving disputed this theory. At the
stroke of midnight, clarity began to emerge and it became obvious I had most
likely been un-successful this year.

Since returning to London, I have
had time to reflect on what I learnt at ECTRIMS. Firstly, I was amazed by the
sheer number of people who have an interest in the field of MS. Whilst this can
be overwhelming, there was clear evidence of vibrant and effective
collaborations. Secondly, there seems to be a lot of excitement amongst
clinicians and researchers alike at the emergence of a number of new and
effective Disease-Modifying Therapies for treating relapsing-remitting MS.
Finally, I was inspired by how much emphasis was placed on research in
progressive MS, a field where effective therapies have traditionally remained
elusive. 

I look forward to attending the 30th ECTRIMS Congress next
year in Boston; and who knows… maybe this time my telephone will ring!

About the author

Arie Gafson

9 comments

  • Arie,

    Thanks for this.

    Most MSers now know that MS is an industry – huge amounts of jobs and revenues in the drugs industry and huge amounts of MS researchers in hundreds of teams around the world.

    The ACTRIMS / ECTRIMS 2014 website says that there will be 7000 attendees from 90 countries. The 7000 attendees are mostly doctors and researchers specialising in MS. You have to ask what they do all year (MS research has been funded for over 60 years). No one knows the cause of the disease, there are no treatments to stop progression, and no treatments to repair the damage. No doubt there will be lots of research presented on the worthless EAE model and some head to head comparison of copaxone v interferon.

    I wouldn't be too scared about Professors in this sector. I come from a different academic background where the Professors knew amst everythign about the subject. Professors in MS know very little about the disease.

    Enjoy your time in Boston. As a young doctor you'll have another 25 years of MS conferences around the world (never in Rotherham or Botlon). They are great for air miles and tasting the local food. May be there will be some breakthroughs announced this year – I live in hope.

    • The neuros may not be specialist MS neuros so they come to these meeting to update their knowledge. All doctors are expected to continue with their medical education. This is what the meeting is about. Some of them are not research active.

      As to lots of EAE, I would say not much. However before you go on much more about worthless animal studies and the same breath make the comments about no repair, no treatments for progression…remember without animal experiments in the mix it will not be "no" it will be "never" Their are now plenty of animal studies on repair.

      In addition it is a marketing/information event. We look forward to see the stands.

      It is interesting their will be the "my stand is bigger than your stand" and so it is interesting that a big sponsor has a smaller size stand than a smaller sponsor at least on the floor plan.
      Will heads roll?

      MS drugs are getting more diverse as witnessed by more players appearing in the marketing/information stands. These are of various sizes, the me-toos waiting in the wings or the new aires apparent.

      As to breakthoughs, it is relative to your perspective….more choice is on the way for RRMSers for progressive MSers it will not be a good enough year because there is no treatment imminent…maybe net year. Gilenya will either be the first new treatment or will be a none-starter.

      Not everyone agrees on the cause…unfair to say no one knows they very well may.

      Will ECTRIMS be there in 25 years probably but it may not be in the same format, some companies may have lost interest in MS if they are not making money, others will be on the scene and if MS is not a "cash cow" the sponsors will be off like a shot…Go to a Science/ non-clinical meeting and you see how the other half lives.

    • Prof M,

      I note what you say, but you need to put on the hat of an MSer. This is one of many conference – there is also the AAN meeting, European Charcot Foudntion, LACTRIMS, PACTRIMS….. I would guess that Prof G will rake up 150,000 miles of travel this year. He's been to Oz, South America, Denmark, Boston… and these are the ones he has mentioned o this blodg (there will be many more). 7000 attendees are going to Boston. Let's say their average travel, hotels, food costs are £1000 each for the conference. That's £7 million in an age of austerity. This is at a time when MSers are worried about cuts to their disability allowance. Your picture of a gravy train pretty much summed it up. As ever you are left in Blighty to clean out the mice and taek prof G's lab coat to the dry cleaners. I'm not sure if it's because you take a stand on a matter of principal or because there's a Deff Leppard concert at the O2. But I respect you. I'm sure the landlord of the nearest pub to the London Hospital is rubbing his hands with glee. When the cat's away the mice will play. Try to limit yourself to six pints at lunchtime as Prof G's post won't get opened.

    • I hate to disappoint you but MD is also in Boston hoovering up the lavish hospitality whilst poor me is left holding the fort!

    • Prof M has disappointed me. I suppose Prof G needed someone to carry his Gucci suitcase. Your time will come MD2. Can you resist the gala dinner, neuro bowl, free ipads? Make sure you keep Prof M's mice well fed. At least they get a five day break from the sound of their sisters and brothers being dissected by Mouse Doctor.

    • Prof G's luggage consists entirely of the hides of endangered species (researchers!!!!) 😉
      I attended one ECtrims a while back, I was so nauseous seeing the money wasted on the lavish pharma stands I was unable to eat the gala dinner. Didn't get a free iPad but did get a free abacus.
      All the mice are given ear plugs prior to any procedure.

    • I have yet to get a ipad but went one to go on google glass but i couldnt be boother to do it. If you watch theinnternet you will see what im up to.
      ri am seeing double a pharma booth for the rest of the world and a usa one

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