With the 2021 ASCO Annual Meeting around the corner, cancer care is under pressure as never before due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, there is still a strong sense of excitement and optimism around the potential of modern science to tackle cancer.

Teresa Graham, Head of Pharma Global Product Strategy (GPS) at Roche sat down for a virtual chat with Elena Bernedo Arzac, Head of Oncology, GPS at Roche, to discuss the opportunities in the field of oncology, even amidst current challenges.

Teresa Graham (TG): The theme of the meeting this year is “Equity: Every Patient. Every Day. Everywhere.” It feels especially relevant right now, doesn’t it?

Elena Bernedo Arzac (EBA): It does. It has been such a challenging year for everyone. Many cancer patients have been inevitably impacted by this terrible pandemic. This has included not only delays in getting the best available treatment but also missed screening opportunities. This means many people have been diagnosed at a later disease state where, unfortunately, the prognosis is worse. This is why equitable access to all cancer healthcare resources from screening through to treatment is so important. I think as a society we have become so used to looking at the big numbers, it is important to remember that behind each statistic there are real individuals, and we need to remain steadfast in helping every single one.

TG: Absolutely. It also speaks to the individuality of cancer itself. We know that cancer is a mutation-driven disease of the genome, and that every person is unique and so is every cancer. That knowledge has unlocked huge progress in recent years, allowing us to tailor treatment approaches in a more personalised way. I really believe that one day this will contribute to making cancer a chronic, yet manageable disease.

It’s this belief and faith in progress that makes me so excited about this year’s congress. The meeting is always an exciting time to pause, step back and reflect on the latest thinking in cancer care. It gives us an opportunity to learn from the scientific accomplishments of others, whilst enabling us to share our own advances and demonstrate our continued commitment to leading the progress in cancer.

EBA: And our data this year exemplifies just how much progress we are making for patients. Building upon our legacy as the leader in oncology, we are leveraging our deep understanding of the science to further pave the way towards cure. For example, I’m inspired by our growing reach into new tumour types, some of which haven't seen any meaningful advances in recent years. In our continuing quest for innovation, we're also moving earlier in the disease, with trials across our broad portfolio in neoadjuvant and adjuvant treatments, before and after surgery, where the aim of treatment is cure.

TG: The advances we are making with immunotherapy and targeted medicines in cancer types that are difficult to treat is really exciting. For the first time, we will present immunotherapy data in early stage lung cancer, which explores the possibilities of a new era of treatment in this setting. Lung cancer remains the most common cause of cancer death in the world and one of the most challenging cancers to treat, so I know we are all hopeful about the potential impact of these data for patients. It is also important to take a moment to talk about the promise of a tumour agnostic approach.

EBA: That’s a great point. While cancer has traditionally always been categorised and treated mainly according to its location in the body, we know the DNA changes that are driving its growth may be different, making each cancer unique. Tumour agnostic treatments that are developed to target these alterations demonstrate the value of coupling accurate diagnosis through genomic profiling with targeted therapies to develop truly personalised treatment plans. We’re actually exhibiting a couple of innovative studies at this year’s congress that are designed to investigate the potential of using a tumour agnostic approach to treat patients according to the identified changes in their genes. It may be that successful explorations of this scientific approach could change the way treatment decisions are made in the future. Through novel clinical trial approaches, we are also moving ever forward in increasing accessibility and diversity, as, for example, we explore at-home assessments through decentralisation.

TG: Yes, and of course it’s also important to remember that we aren’t doing all this alone. We are seeing how our partnerships, such as those we have with FMI and Science37, are enabling exciting new scientific possibilities. Partnerships are key to everything and it's great to see the impact of partnerships over the years in helping advance healthcare throughout the world. For example, in order to address the high incidence of cervical cancer in the Kagera region in Tanzania, we have been working with Pepal to leverage partnerships between companies, the ministry of health, NGOs and academic institutions to train local health leaders. Or in Columbia, we've partnered with the country's largest healthcare organisations to improve early detection of breast cancer through special consulting rooms for women.

We work with our partners to leverage our individual strengths so that we can continue to lead the field with our broad and cutting-edge pipeline, whilst also being equally as thoughtful about how we deliver this science to patients. Adopting a holistic and integrated approach to healthcare delivery is essential: instead of thinking about the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and monitoring components of care separately, our aim is to integrate these components into a seamless experience that helps patients achieve optimal outcomes while reducing complexity, potential discordance and costs.

EBA: And by marrying biology and technology, we are pioneering ways to ensure our approach to personalised healthcare will help address health inequities and disparities. Our aim is to enable everyone to benefit from the latest advances in care, regardless of gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background. From the way we look at and conduct clinical trials, to access programmes, screening and diagnosis, I feel so passionate about our worldwide partnerships that are helping address existing issues today and going forward.

Which brings us back to where we started - “Every Patient. Every Day. Everywhere”. I think when we talk about personalised healthcare in oncology, it is about far more than improving treatment - it’s about improving life for every person with, or affected by, cancer.

TG: I couldn’t agree more. Let’s hope this year’s event brings us closer to a cure for patients around the world.

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