Four reasons to feel inspired about ASCO and EHA – virtually, of course
A lot can change in six months. When I took on my new role for Janssen EMEA in January, after spending most of my career in Latin America, I knew things would be different. Yet I expected most of that change to centre around geography, and the various idiosyncrasies that define the different regional healthcare landscapes.
Fast forward to today, though, and the world has transformed beyond what I could have imagined. This coronavirus has left no region unaffected, and health systems in EMEA and beyond are having to operate, collaborate and innovate in ways that very few have ever had to before. Events, practices and ways of working across our industry are all changing – but some of these have been in ways that have given real cause for optimism in the future.
For those of us working in oncology, the recent ASCO and EHA congresses have provided two clear cases in point. When the switch to an online format for both events was first announced, it was natural to wonder: could this even work? These were two huge milestones in the oncology calendar that drew thousands of people together on a collective platform to share scientific progress. Taking events of such scale virtual seemed like a daunting challenge. Could we continue to achieve discussion, debate and progress, when you couldn’t see your peers face-to-face?
1. Going virtual doesn’t mean going small
EHA and ASCO usually occupy vast spaces filled with stands, posters, and of course countless delegates all focused on one thing – the exchange of scientific knowledge. Without this physical presence to attract people, they could have easily been restricted or diminished somehow. Yet in the case of ASCO, we have already seen that numbers of attendees were actually slightly higher than last year – 42,750 compared to 42,500. With the travel barrier eliminated and the cost of attending reduced, the online setting may have also opened the events up to people who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to participate. Inclusivity is something that we as an industry need to consistently strive towards in order to ensure congresses achieve the most effective and diverse dialogue, and going virtual could have a big role to play in opening up these important cornerstones of oncology to a broader audience.
2. Progress powers on
At every ASCO and EHA, one of the undoubted highlights is seeing new data presented and discussed by the scientific community. This year was no different, and for Janssen, meant presenting data on several compounds that could offer new or alternative treatment options for people living with diseases such as prostate, lung and haematological cancers in the future. One of my personal highlights was at EHA, where we shared our initial findings around how we could use our existing treatment portfolio to investigate other potential rare blood disease areas like AL amyloidosis. The disease affects just over 40 people per million in the US and Europe,1 and currently has no approved treatment options aside from chemotherapy.2 This illustrated how we’re continuing to look deeper at the cancer types and sub-types that we know best, to find where we can achieve the highest impact and change what a cancer diagnosis means to patients with diseases like AL amyloidosis.
3. CAR-T continues to excite
For me, CAR-T is among the most promising developments in oncology – and both ASCO and EHA served to underline its incredible potential, with multiple organisations showcasing progress being made in this arena of precision medicine. From multiple myeloma to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, there were exciting results across haematological cancers, reinforcing what a difference this treatment class could make to patients. Our own adoptive immuno-therapies, for example, may one day have the potential to provide a treatment option for those living with relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma who have no other treatment options left. Every person with cancer faces a unique journey, so the way we treat them must be personalised as well, and CAR-T offers such a promising avenue of ongoing investigation into achieving this goal.
4. Changing how we communicate
A key challenge of the congresses’ digital format was communication and it is a credit to the scientific committees of both ASCO and EHA for managing to translate their programmes to an entirely online forum. For Janssen specifically, this meant considering how we engage healthcare professionals and media without being able to spend time with them face-to-face and when all they had to do to move on was click to another tab? The answer was to get creative! I can’t pretend that I previously had much experience with virtual reality, but at our first virtual media event I found myself using a VR experience to explore with attendees how CAR-T works against multiple myeloma. It was an innovative way of communicating for us, using technology to provide a better understanding of a complex but extremely relevant topic. It illustrated how, despite the apparent challenges, we still had an opportunity to explore different technologies and broaden our horizons. I know numerous similarly inventive options were released at the congresses, proving that our field’s creative spirit extends beyond the R&D lab, and demonstrating the achievements made by organisations around the world in pushing digital boundaries to deliver fantastic virtual congress experiences.
Going virtual for the first time led to very different ASCO and EHA experiences for everyone involved. But having seen and heard the progress and passion on show, I’m certain they will be remembered as ground-breaking for all the right reasons. COVID-19 will continue to have serious implications for oncologists and patients worldwide, and for how congresses are run. But it was clear that our collective commitment to finding new, better treatments for people living with cancer continues to burn bright, regardless of where in the world we are.
1 Quock TP, Yan T, Chang E, et al. Epidemiology of AL amyloidosis: a real-world study using US claims data. Blood Adv.2018;2(10):1046‐1053.
2 National Health Service. Amyloidosis. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/amyloidosis/
This article originally appeared on Thepharmaletter on June 24 2020.