The Unseen Innovators: Why ASCO is More Relevant Than Ever

June 2, 2017

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting occurs every June and brings together the world’s best minds and latest breakthrough research in cancer. For the past couple of meetings, immunotherapies, drugs that help the immune system combat cancer, have stolen the show. First available to patients in 2011, they began to draw a larger swath of attention in 2014 with two additional market entrants that Forbes called the most important new drugs of that year. While they have and will continue to garner much attention this year, emerging types will steal the headlines, such as chimeric antigen receptor-T (CAR-T) therapies, in which cancer cells are removed from the patient, re-engineered and then re-implanted to attack other cancer cells. Some CAR-Ts are showing almost unbelievable results and changing the future of treatment for some cancers.

Having followed numerous ASCO meetings, I’ll always read the latest immunotherapy news, but that’s not what I’m looking forward to this year. I’m focused on the “unseen innovators” – the researchers, clinicians, patients, and organizations that exist at the intersection of multiple disciplines, including clinical research, technology, social media, big data, genomics, epidemiology (the branch of public health that deals with the spread of diseases), amongst others. These unseen innovators are present at ASCO and have changed how we view and combat cancer, but their buzz hasn’t risen to the level of immunotherapies or even traditional cancer treatments delivered in a hospital or clinic. As communicators, we need to watch these important innovators… here’s why:

Data Miners:
There’s chatter about the impact of data across most industries, but at ASCO, the focus is on analyzing large quantities of patient data and pulling insights to utilize in cancer treatment. Companies dedicated to mining cancer data include OncoDNA, COTA, and Seven Bridges. Even ASCO itself has a big data offering called CancerLinQ. However, an abstract being presented at the meeting indicates that only half of oncologists have a working knowledge of big data, and even less would champion initiatives to use it. While there are sessions on big data, including one specific to insights on pediatric cancer, a greater prominence of the importance of this work could help oncologists recognize the value of big data and feel more comfortable with using it.

Care Model Molders:
When doctors diagnose a patient, they know exactly how they’re going to treat them, thanks to set standards of treatment called care models. Care models help doctors dictate whether patients will be treated in the hospital or at home, if they will take certain medications based on their age, health, what they can afford, etc. These models are especially crucial for oncologists, as cancer patients are treated often and over long periods of time. Many organizations design improved care models, including academic institutions, hospitals, government groups, companies such as Outcome Health and PatientPoint, and ASCO, who just this year launched their own tool to help improve value-based care for oncology practices. At the upcoming meeting, there will be a session dedicated to discussing the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation Oncology Care Model and how it will impact the future of cancer care in terms of cost for patients. Beyond oncologists, it’s important that this aspect of treatment be more widely understood, to help patients and caregivers better understand how to navigate their care.

Treatment Precisionists:
Precision medicine is a medical model in which healthcare is customized to individual patient needs, taking into account the patient’s environment, genome, and even finances to help best service the patient rather than only taking his or her diagnosis into account. This model has demonstrated value in the past, but is more complicated to implement than it seems. Today, there are companies that help practices implement precision medicine with as much ease as possible, such as Cancer Genetics, Inc., Strata Oncology, 3D Signatures Inc., and Precision Oncology. In terms of data to be presented, this abstract for a trial still ongoing out of Australia, is studying the treatment of rare cancers with medicines that are designed to target biomarkers (a biological substance) that the patient’s cancer presents. I’m looking forward to seeing where this study goes, but overall, it’s not the argument that individualized treatment improves patient outcomes that’s debated, but rather how easy and affordable it is to implement individualization per patient.

Gaining a better understanding and working knowledge of the unseen innovators within health can pay huge dividends for communicators interested in spotting trends earlier, and puts the clients you represent one step closer toward their ultimate goal… helping patients. These innovators, paired with gains in traditional clinical treatments, are crucial to treating cancer and deserve recognition, but I can see the future, and I know I’m going to have to dig to find information about the unseen innovators. Meanwhile, I’ll be able to do a quick Google search (at most) for the meeting updates on traditional treatments. Maybe in 2018, ASCO can create a track for innovations that don’t necessarily fit into the meeting tracks that already exist. After all, it’s always said that cancer isn’t one disease and won’t have one solution. Cancer innovation isn’t happening in one health vertical alone, so we should adjust to include the outliers – otherwise, they’ll remain unseen.