Dr Rafael Duarte is the President of this year’s special EBMT 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting. A well-known face at EBMT meetings, Dr Duarte has served the Society at the Scientific Council and the Board for nearly a decade as EBMT Secretary and TCWP Chair. He is based at Hospital Universitario Puerta de Hierro Majadahonda, Madrid, Spain. Rafa would like to give a warm welcome to all this year’s delegates.
Q: Rafa, welcome to this year’s congress. What words of welcome do you have for our delegates in this very different EBMT 2020?
A: The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped this year’s annual meeting, as it has the rest of our lives for the past few months, personally and professionally. So, my first words of welcome can only be words to remember everyone that we have lost to COVID-19, and in particular, so many colleagues, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals that we’ve lost at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. As you said, this is going to be a very different annual meeting, different in the virtual format and platform that we’ll be able to enjoy, and also different because in these difficult circumstances it brings together the commitment and interest in our Society of so many different partners in a way that to me it is perhaps more evident than ever before.
Q: As you mentioned, this year’s meeting is taking place in a very challenging environment with COVID-19. How has COVID-19 affected your own work, in Madrid that has been one of the hotspots?
A: COVID-19 has undoubtedly had, and continues to have, a terrible impact in public health and in the economy. However, physicians and healthcare professionals at large rise to such challenges and we give the best of ourselves when it is most needed. It has been very hard in many ways, but in these months, we have also experienced at work extremely rewarding levels of commitment, multidisciplinary collaboration and teamwork.
When, in light of the pandemic, we decided to change the annual meeting we immediately agreed to reflect the impact of COVID-19 in our work in several new sessions. In Special Session 1 today (see the article) we will review the EBMT recommendations on this topic and will have the direct experience of the impact of COVID-19 in our patients in three of the countries with a highest number of cases: Italy, Spain and the UK. But also, during COVID-19 we have all collaborated with the best of our expertise to solve the medical problems presented by the pandemic. Haematologists had a lot to offer in this collaborative effort. At a personal level, we have led from Madrid a national, multicentre, randomised clinical trial on convalescent plasma for hospitalised COVID-19 patients in which many other EBMT members and centres have participated, but also projects using mesenchymal stromal cells, our expertise in the management of endothelial damage which is present in COVID-19 patients or with immunomodulatory drugs and antibodies. Some of these studies will be communicated in Special Session 5 (on Tuesday) on haematological therapies at the crossroad of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q: How big a challenge has it been to move to an all online congress?
A: The challenge has been colossal. In particular, because we had to respond as best we could to an unpredictable and rapidly changing scenario. We can all be very proud of what we have achieved, and when I reflect about it now that the annual meeting is finally about to start, the thought that comes to mind is of gratitude to the many people involved. Gratitude to our industry sponsors, for their commitment to EBMT and for their support and help in the transition to this new virtual format. Gratitude to the EBMT team, which has worked beyond any expectations to bring together this virtual meeting 2020 and in parallel to prepare timely a new meeting in Madrid for EBMT in 2021. Gratitude to the Faculty, who have adapted to the changing scenario, deadlines and technical needs, who have worked during the past weeks in the Summer to provide and record the contents that we’ll all be able to enjoy in the next few days. And finally, gratitude to all the participants, because this year we have an unprecedented number of more than six thousand and five hundred participants. Over one thousand more than our last meeting in 2019. A big challenge indeed, and a challenge successfully met with the collaboration from so many people.
Q: As long as the pandemic is brought under control, are you optimistic we can return to an onsite congress in Madrid in 2021?
A: I am very optimistic. I think that for the first time, in Madrid 2021 we will have the best of two worlds, of two types of meetings, the best of an onsite meeting in a great venue and beautiful city like Madrid, along with the best of the virtual world coming from our learnings and experience in this virtual meeting 2020. As long as the pandemic is under control, and with new flexibility to adapt to the changing circumstances, the balance between onsite and virtual will hopefully be able to let our members and participants from different parts of the world have the best possible experience in next year’s annual meeting.
Q: For those delegates that do not know you well: how did you develop your own interest in haematology through your career and what are your main areas of expertise?
A: Haematology, transplantation and immunology were fields I found very interesting as a medical student. The hospital and the department of haematology in Córdoba, my hometown where I went to medical school, was a reference centre for transplantation for southern Spain. However, as a student at the time I was keener on laboratory research and immunology than on a clinical specialty.
In my last years in medical school I became involved in a group of volunteers who would give support to the relatives of patients referred to Córdoba from other parts of the country to undergo transplantation. It was through the relation with those families, through trying to answer their questions outside of the hospital, through visiting those patients in the transplant unit with the relatives from outside, rather than as a medical student from inside, that I realise that if I were to become a physician, it would have to be for something as meaningful as taking care of patients and families that face the hardships of haematological malignancies and undergoing transplantation.
Since then, I have been blessed that my interest in haematology and HSCT have been strengthened in some great centres and by great mentors: here in Madrid at Hospital Ramón y Cajal, where I did my initial fellowship in haematology, later as a post-doc at Dana Farber Cancer Institute – Harvard Medical School in Boston and at the Anthony Nolan Research Institute in London, as a transplant coordinator at The Royal Free Hospital and a consultant haematologist in HSCT at King’s College Hospital in London, for a total of eight years before coming back to Spain, to the Catalan Institute of Oncology in Barcelona first, and since 2015 to Hospital Puerta de Hierro Majadahonda in Madrid. Over the years, I have kept a particular interest in transplant complications, infective and non-infective, as well as in other aspects of HSCT and cellular therapy. All this, I hope, without losing the link to the human side of our discipline that started it all nearly three decades ago.
Q: As Congress President you probably do not have much time to watch many sessions, but what are some of the sessions you would like to get to if you can?
A: On the contrary, one of the advantages of this virtual format with pre-recorded sessions is that for the first time I am going to have much more time to watch, either live when they are first displayed or later, many more sessions than in any standard onsite meetings before!
The level of the science this year is amazing, with several top-notch randomised trials. The Presidential Session is an absolute must this year. Also, I’ll follow as much as I can satellite symposia, in particular those on infective and non-infective transplant complications and on cellular therapies. I’m looking forward to seeing the reception we get for the new COVID-19 sessions that open and close the scientific program. Also, I am particularly happy to have introduced for the first time in an annual meeting a Multistakeholder Forum on Innovative Therapies (on Monday morning) which brings together different partners and stakeholders. A new space of critical relevance for the role of EBMT as the leading society in this field worldwide. Of course, I will also participate for sure in the various sessions and e-posters that colleagues from my team will be presenting this year.
Thank you to all the colleagues and friends that are part of this 46th EBMT Annual Meeting, this first EBMT virtual meeting is a reality! Enjoy EBMT 2020!