From Houston, Texas, to Beirut, Lebanon, the Society of Hematologic Oncology (SOHO) global community continues to grow thanks in large part to the efforts of its Ambassador Program.
Established in 2012, the program’s mission is to foster the worldwide exchange of knowledge and collaboration among thousands of hematologist oncologists, regardless of geography.
The Ambassador Program works by having select individuals, recognized as experts in their respective countries, represent the Society in their given region. This is often achieved by facilitating informal discussions among local experts or through one of the many official SOHO satellite meetings, which are held in person (and often as hybrid events) within the ambassador’s region.
For the global hematology-oncology community, the program has the added benefit of actively reducing barriers to access and knowledge.
“If you can’t go to SOHO, SOHO is coming to you,” said Elias Jabbour, MD, a Professor in the Department of Leukemia at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “The idea is we bring the information to the people.”
Ambassador Program by the Numbers
Since the program’s inception, 126 ambassadors in 63 countries have joined the initiative, according to Hagop Kantarjian, MD, co-founder of SOHO and the Society’s Ambassador Program.
“[SOHO] advocates our mission by uniting members [from] around the world to discuss and unify the most advanced management and treatment approaches for patients with hematologic malignancies,” Dr. Kantarjian said. “The SOHO Ambassador Program is one of our core initiatives to accomplish this mission.”
The ambassadors play a vital role in cross-collaboration within the greater SOHO regional networks and actively facilitate the exchange of information and communication between the Society and local experts in the field of hematologic oncology.
“The program stands as a great initiative,” said Phillip Scheinberg, MD, ambassador of the SOHO Brazil chapter, which hosted one of the first regional SOHO events in 2018. “Because of it, SOHO has rapidly become a known society in Brazil, and the quality of the regional meeting has earned a good reputation.”
Dr. Scheinberg, who is the Head of the Division of Hematology at Hospital A Beneficência Portuguesa in São Paulo, Brazil, explained how the regional meetings instilled a sense of community within the larger SOHO network.
“It approximated people from different parts of the world, not only toward the annual meeting in Houston, but it also instilled a sense of ownership in each region,” Dr. Scheinberg said. “It enabled us to work in our own countries in order to make SOHO a success.”
In 2023, SOHO Israel held its first regional meeting, and shortly after the annual event in Houston, the new Middle East/North Africa (MENA) chapter will hold its inaugural meeting, marking a milestone for the region, which had relied on unofficial gatherings until now.
Dr. Jabbour, who is originally from Lebanon, and Amer Zeidan, MBBS, MHS, a native of Jordan, serve as ambassadors to the region. The two will co-chair the program with Ahmad Ibrahim, MD, of the Middle East Hospital in Bsalim, Lebanon, who is also an ambassador, and Rami Komrokji, MD, Head of the Leukemia and MDS Section at Moffitt Cancer Center.
Both Drs. Jabbour and Zeidan stated that one of their motivations in organizing a local chapter is to give back to their communities.
“I think part of giving back is to help mentor these rising stars so they can fulfill their dreams, whether they choose to come to the United States or remain in their home regions,” Dr. Jabbour said. “By engaging in top-notch research that benefits their community, they can advance their careers and academic pursuits.”
The goal for them is to establish collaborative channels for medical research and education, aiming to help build capacity in their home regions, Dr. Zeidan explained.
“We, along with many of our colleagues who have relocated to the United States, often receive inquiries about patient care and guidance for managing cases in our home countries,” Dr. Zeidan, who is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Yale University, said. “We share a strong desire to enhance knowledge and foster collaboration in medical education, research, and related activities to benefit the people in our countries and regions of origin.”
SOHO MENA will have the distinct challenge of customizing each local event according to the specific needs of the region.
“The presentations will be tailored based on the country,” Dr. Zeidan said. “What can be done in the United States may not be appropriate in these regions because of regulations or lack of drugs or resources. For example, we will have cases and meet-the-expert sessions according to the country.”
The goal for them is to alternate future meetings between Lebanon and Jordan, eventually expanding into other countries within the region on a rotating basis, Dr. Zeidan said, adding that he was inspired by a meeting in SOHO Brazil, where there was an emphasis on global reach.
“Hopefully it will not end with the meeting,” Dr. Zeidan said. “The meeting will be just a starting point for additional collaborations. Beyond the scientific talks, in-person networking is invaluable for progress in research.”
Where Are You Going?
Unlike larger conferences, SOHO meetings in general are more intimate and allow participants to focus and absorb the content in a way that is not possible at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) or American Society of Hematology (ASH) meetings.
“You can’t go to all of the sessions, and you just become very conflicted,” Dr. Scheinberg said, in reference to the large trade shows. “Here we have one room. We cover acute lymphocytic leukemia in the morning. We cover multiple myeloma in two or three hours. We have world-class speakers in one room. You’re not there fighting over your time with anybody else or any of their presentations.”
Each regional meeting has its own character, and by Dr. Scheinberg’s own admission, SOHO Brazil “tries to keep things light and informal.” This tone becomes evident when skimming through the chapter’s annual meeting program, where titles reflect a breezy creativity (for example, a session on chronic lymphocytic leukemia was titled, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who Is the Most Beautiful BTK Inhibitor of Them All”).
Dr. Scheinberg admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time crafting clever titles but said SOHO Brazil attendees go crazy for the program. He explained that the informality of the meeting brings a lot of value to people.
“That differs from other events, such as pharmaceutical events where everything has to be approved down to the individual slide,” he said. “The model, objectives, and format are all inspiring, dynamic, comprehensive, interactive, and fresh. It is also very different from what we have seen from other societies.”
Across the Atlantic in France, Mauricette Michallet, MD, one of the ambassadors for SOHO France, explained they try to keep the program distinct from the meeting in Houston, while maintaining the basic structure.
“We see the program in the United States, and we try to be innovative,” she said. “We include the latest news on all the [hematologic] malignancies and account for what happened at [the] ASH [Annual Meeting] and the European Hematology Association [Congress].”
Dr. Michallet, who is a Professor at the Léon Bérard Cancer Centre in Lyon, France, joined the Ambassador Program after regularly attending the SOHO Annual Meeting for many years, she said. At one point, she and a fellow clinician organized a local meeting in France. Unfortunately, those plans were upended by COVID-19, forcing the team to cancel the 2020 meeting, which would have been the first one in the country.
“We organized two years later in 2022, which was the first SOHO meeting in France,” Dr. Michallet explained. “That meeting was a success,” she said, estimating there were between 120 and 180 registrants per day.
The chapter is currently organizing the 2023 SOHO France meeting, which is scheduled for September.
“We already have the program, and it includes participation from French, European, and American people,” she said.
SOHO France also works in tandem with SOHO Italy, Dr. Michallet noted, adding that the two organizations share significant developments and research in hematologic oncology within their respective countries.
“We have a good collaboration with Italy and with Claudio Cerchione, who was invited to the SOHO meeting in France in 2022,” she said. “I think it’s important to [have] collaboration between countries in Europe [that are holding] SOHO meetings.”
As for SOHO Italy, now in its fifth year, Claudio Cerchione, MD, the region’s ambassador, echoed Dr. Michallet’s sentiments.
“The idea of SOHO Italy is to be a local part of SOHO and to connect worldwide experts in the idea of spreading their expertise in our country,” Dr. Cerchione said. “I think that we are doing something different in Italy. Before, all the education was [based] in Italy, in Italian, and now we are also sharing international content. I think this is becoming [a] really important point of education, and also the possibility of [working] together.”
Dr. Cerchione, who is a hematologist at the Istituto Scientifico Romagnolo per lo Studio e la Cura dei Tumori IRCCS in Meldola, Italy, estimated 1,000 people will register for SOHO Italy’s fifth annual meeting, which will be a hybrid event (the in-person program will be held in Rome from October 3 to 6, 2023). He was effusive in his thanks to the clinicians at MD Anderson, many of whom sit on SOHO Italy’s Scientific Board, including Dr. Jabbour, for their support and guidance and said SOHO Italy is becoming more than just a conference, with its novel projects and notable growth.
“Today, we are increasing our activities, so the annual conference became four days long,” Dr. Cerchione said. “We are connecting with major institutions [from around] the world. We want to be something more than a conference—we want SOHO Italy [to be] a live scientific society,” he said.
Free Is Free
An added benefit of the regional SOHO meetings is that they are free, which is quite a bargain in an era where the cost of a conference registration alone can run $1,000 or more. There is no catch to that free price tag—participants just need to sign up for a SOHO membership, which is also free for life and provides a deep discount to the SOHO Annual Meeting in Houston.
“SOHO membership is free,” Dr. Scheinberg said. “Once you’re a SOHO member, you can register for the SOHO Brazil event for free. It’s very easy. It has been a successful model in Brazil, where we have averaged between 1,000 and 1,500 attendees in the medical and multidisciplinary sessions over the years.”
The affordability of these local meetings, offered through membership at no cost, ensures accessibility for those who may not have been able to afford to attend otherwise.
“Some colleagues work in small institutions that have no funding,” Dr. Cerchione said. “Our idea is to give this education free to everyone.”
These regional events are important, as only a minority of people have the privilege to travel to the ASCO or ASH annual meetings, or to go to Houston for SOHO, Dr. Jabbour said.
“Rather than limiting the attendance to a select few physicians at these conferences, we can take a proactive approach by expanding our reach to an entire region and beyond,” he said, adding that “I’m fortunate. I came [to the United States] and [Dr. Kantarjian] mentored me. I am where I am today because of that, and [it’s the] same for Amer [Zeidan] and his mentorship. There are people in these regions we can do the same for.”
Leah Sherwood is Managing Editor of Blood Cancers Today.