An interview with Dietmar Berger about personalised medicine

I firmly believe that precision medicine – individualized treatment – will lead to major improvement in patient outcomes
Dietmar Berger
Dietmar Berger, Head of Roche Pharma Development, Oncology

What does the ESMO 2014 theme of "precision medicine in cancer care" mean for you?

The ESMO theme is very much in line with our focus at Roche, where we are developing targeted medicines based on a deep understanding of molecular pathways and clinical practice. In hematology and oncology, we know more about the underlying science than ever before - and we are starting to specifically address tumor drivers, mechanisms of resistance, and immunological checkpoints.

Close collaboration between diagnostics and drug development is key to our success in the area, and the majority of our new molecules are studied with a companion biomarker. I firmly believe that precision medicine – individualized treatment – will lead to major improvement in patient outcomes.

How do you see precision medicine in cancer care evolving over the next few years, and what role will Roche play in this progress?

On one hand, diagnostics will get better and better at characterizing the key drivers of individual patient tumors. Next-generation sequencing and blood-based biomarkers will allow deeper analysis of molecular targets, and will also demonstrate how a tumor evolves – especially during treatment and during development of resistance. This will allow “precision therapy”, i.e. addressing the individual tumor, and even adapting treatment to changes of the tumor over time.

On the other hand, our therapeutic armamentarium will become more and more specific, and we will utilize combinations of targeted therapies to attack tumor cells from different sides at the same time. In addition, we will use immunotherapy approaches (including immunotherapy combinations) to unleash the bodies’ own immune system against the tumor, for example the T cell-based defense mechanisms. All this requires radically new ways of thinking and innovative drug development, including biomarker-based patient selection, new study designs, and close collaboration with regulatory authorities. We are at the forefront of these developments, and we are shaping the landscape of hematology and oncology.

When I speak to people in the organization, everybody has a story how cancer touched their lives, and you sense the personal commitment to make a real change for patients
Dietmar Berger

Another theme from ESMO 2014 is how everyone should work together to achieve a common goal: improving patient outcomes. How is Roche leading the industry in this area?

Improving the patient experience and patient outcomes is our main goal. In oncology, we are often focusing on analyses of response rates and survival data – and those are important. What really counts, however, is whether we are helping patients. We are leading the way through close collaboration with patients and patient advocates, and we are incorporating patient input into our clinical development programs. All our key studies include the assessment of patient-reported outcomes, and we are developing new tools to measure the patient experience in various areas, for example in breast cancer.

There are over 160 accepted abstracts on Roche medicines at ESMO this year. What is it that keeps Roche at the forefront of oncology research?

To me, there are three important components: a deep understanding of the science of oncology, a strong focus on patients, and having the right people. When I speak to people in the organization, everybody has a story how cancer touched their lives, and you sense the personal commitment to make a real change for patients.

Another factor is the breadth and depth or our work. Take a closer look at the 160 abstracts on Roche medicines at ESMO, and you will find that they span a wide range, from exciting preclinical research, to potentially practice-changing Phase III clinical data, to cooperative group and investigator studies on our established brands.

Finally, would you have any tips for anyone with some "down time" in Madrid during the congress?

Madrid is a fascinating, lively city. You can of course go to the key sites, like the Museo del Prado, or the Royal Palace. I like to be in the historic part of the city center, where they have some beautiful squares (e.g. the Plaza Mayor), and to sit outside and have a "cafe con leche", or some tapas in the evening.

About Dietmar Berger

Dietmar Berger, M.D., PH.D., is Senior Vice President and Global Head, Product Development, Clinical Hematology and Oncology at Roche. In this role, Dr. Berger leads the medical strategy for the company’s global clinical development portfolio for cancer medicines. Dr. Berger was formerly Vice President of Global Clinical Development for Roche’s breast cancer franchise and was instrumental in the development and marketing approvals of two breast cancer medicines across three new indications.

Dr. Berger has more than 20 years of experience in oncology research and development, including as Head of the Clinical Research Center at the University Medical Hospital, Freiburg, Germany. He has held leadership positions at several global pharmaceutical companies and also received the Cancer Award of the German Cancer Society for his research on angiogenesis. Dr. Berger has authored more than 40 scientific publications and five books.

Tags: Science