AACR: Dogs, doughnuts and AstraZeneca's nap-worthy carpet on the conference floor

The sun is shining in San Diego, but you wouldn’t really know it from the cavernous exhibit hall of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting. Instead, you’re met by the sounds of an espresso machine, the smell of roasted coffee beans, a hum of chatter and—what was that? A dog barking?

Sure enough, maneuvering through the thick crowd of people, deeper into the hall you’ll find a wellness center, sponsored by AstraZeneca, with four dogs wearing blue bandannas from the San Diego Humane Society. They even have meeting badges with their names. No doubt the security, which gave each person an ocular pat-down searching for your badge before entering, demanded the canines wear them. Dogs: They’re just like us!

Sunni and Autumn the goldens and a little terrier named Edie, all therapy dogs, greeted passersby. I’m afraid I didn’t catch the fourth’s name, as I was taken in by Edie’s punky pink mohawk. The goldens seemed to really get attached to a woman who abandoned all other plans and just sat on the ground next to them, scratching their bellies and smiling from ear to ear.

Fierce Biotech can exclusively confirm that the therapy dogs were all very good boys and girls. And I can tell you that they definitely made me forget about my troubles—and everything I had previously seen in the past 20 minutes wandering through the posters and company booths. Good thing I wrote notes down. Coincidentally, in a notebook covered in cats.

Click here for more AACR 2024 coverage from the Fierce Biotech team. 

The exhibit hall was truly packed in the early afternoon, with people, not just dogs. Each Big Pharma had a massive booth with soaring billboards overheard. Merck & Co.’s logo spun around in a circle suspended from the roof.

Within each booth, the companies battled for attention. Coffee, always a staple at these conferences, was served up via shiny silver espresso machines. Not quite to the heights of the European Society for Medical Oncology meeting last year, mind you, but AstraZeneca had a long line of people waiting for java thanks to its perfect positioning at one of the main entrances to the hall.

Stepping into the U.K. pharma’s booth, you were greeted by a carpet so soft and squishy that this reporter, with her tired, sore feet, could have laid down for a nap. AstraZeneca also offered juice at the espresso bar, but I wasn’t willing to wait to sample it.

A little further in, I did check out Pfizer’s offerings. They had an array of smoothies in big juice machines, and person after person (me included) asked the lovely server what was in them. She dutifully rattled off a list of ingredients while I forgot them immediately and wondered why Pfizer didn’t just have a sign to save her the trouble. Anyway, I tried the carrot one (I draw the line at drinking celery), and it was very, very good.

To rest said tired, sore feet, I took a load off at Merck’s booth, where they were making fresh, to-order doughnuts, complete with a deep fryer and the dough coming straight out of a stand mixer. Seriously. I considered a minute the ethics of drinking juice and eating doughnuts from the pharma companies I cover but then waved away the notion and decided I was here to objectively experience what these companies have to offer. I ordered the maple glazed doughnuts. They came out warm and dusted with sugar, drizzled with maple glaze.

Reader, I’ll let you decide what was better, the healthy juice or the doughnuts. I don’t want to lead you to either side.

If you were in for more healthy fare, Loxo @ Lilly had pita pocket salads which looked very, very good, actually, but the line was a bit long. Novartis also had smoothies. Honestly, when you’re at a conference, it’s hard to avoid a 100% carb diet, so the healthy offerings were a welcome respite.

Johnson & Johnson was giving out cinnamon buns, which ran out just as this reporter approached. While all GSK had was one automatic coffee maker. Again, you can make your own conclusions.

Deeper into the hall, the AACR Central booth was packed. The organization that brought us all together was hosting two meet-and-greets, one for women and another for minorities in cancer research. It was a convivial atmosphere with business cards being traded back and forth and perhaps, future breakthroughs in the making happening.

Meanwhile, Charles River Labs had a very cool Lego wall asking researchers to add a block depending on their area of research. After chatting with the host, I was invited to add my own block. I’m not a researcher, so we decided I should add a block according to what I was writing that day. I picked a blue one.

If you know, you know. 

The rest of you, you’ll have to check back later to see what block I added.