Key takeaways from ASCO's annual meeting

Last weekend, health care professionals, patients, scientists, patient advocates and biopharmaceutical researchers gathered for the American Society of Clinical Oncology's (ASCO) annual meeting.

Headshot of Dr. Michael Ybarra
Michael Ybarra, MDJune 10, 2022

Key takeaways from ASCO's annual meeting.

Last weekend, health care professionals, patients, scientists and biopharmaceutical researchers gathered for the American Society of Clinical Oncology's (ASCO) annual meeting. With over 200 sessions and 2,500 poster presentations on the latest advances in cancer therapy, the future of cancer diagnosis and treatment is promising.

In just the last few decades, biopharmaceutical companies have made groundbreaking advances in the research and development (R&D) of targeted therapies, immunotherapies and cell-based therapies for conditions ranging from non-small-cell lung cancer to metastatic melanoma to blood cancers. Those achievements have helped to personalize cancer care, providing patients with more targeted treatments beyond traditional chemotherapy, and contributed greatly to recent accelerated declines in cancer death rates. As a result of tremendous treatment advances over the years, cancer death rates have fallen by 32% since peaking in the mid-1990s.

Contrary to many discussions happening in Washington, the presentations at ASCO's annual meeting in Chicago showed the collaborative innovative ecosystem is working to the benefit of patients and the biopharmaceutical industry isn't slowing down anytime soon. Collaboration in oncology is crucial from diagnostics, screenings and all the phases of R&D.

Researchers presented data on a number of revolutionary cancer treatments over the course of the conference, with some of the most exciting advances occurring in targeted therapies, new applications for immunotherapy and the next generation of cell and gene therapies.

New approaches in cancer treatment

A number of presentations focused on new treatment approaches for breast cancer, the most common form of cancer in women aside from skin cancer. One presentation of clinical trial data for a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved immunotherapy elicited a standing ovation at the annual meeting. The therapy is an antibody drug conjugate specifically engineered to target HER2-positive breast cancer. In one trial of more than 500 patients with this advanced form of breast cancer, the therapy cut risk of disease progression or death in half and lowered the risk of death by 36% when compared to chemotherapy. Experts hailed the results as "phenomenally spectacular" and "practice-changing." It's just the latest development contributing to broader advances in treatment that have cut breast cancer death rates by 42% between 1989 and 2019.

Immunotherapy has further changed the standard of care for a variety of solid tumors. Researchers are looking at a wide range of new treatment options for different cancers, including tumor agnostic therapies (in other words, using treatments to target certain markers that the cancer cells have instead of basing therapies primarily on the location). Since 2017, the FDA has approved three cancer treatments that are tumor-location agnostic, and more research was presented to advance these types of therapies. This research is critical to advancing more personalized medicines.

Over the past few years, CAR T-cell therapies have also become transformative treatment options for patients with many forms of blood cancers, such as lymphoma and multiple myeloma. The treatment method involves taking a patient's T cells, "re-engineering" them to kill cancer cells, and infusing them back into the patient. Today, some pediatric patients treated years ago with CAR T-cell therapy are regarded as cancer-free.

Biopharmaceutical companies are now researching a new approach to direct immune cells to target cancer, known as bispecific antibodies to treat many of the same forms of cancer. At ASCO's annual meeting, researchers shared encouraging bispecific antibody data that suggest the therapy could treat blood cancers, including in those who progressed after CAR T-cell therapy, and potentially evolve into treatments for solid tumors as well.

Looking ahead, these incredible advances have enormous potential but to realize it, scientists need a supportive policy environment that values innovation, including continued research post-FDA approval which leads to range of additional advances for patients in terms of increased treatment options. Timely passage of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act agreement has never been more critical to ensure FDA’s human drug review program has the resources it needs to review innovative therapies. At the same time, misguided proposals like government price setting currently under discussion would disincentivize the groundbreaking research and continued medical advances on display at ASCO's annual meeting. It's up to lawmakers to sustain incentivizes for the development of lifesaving treatments and deliver hope to the millions of Americans, and their families, who'll receive the terrible news of a cancer diagnosis in the years ahead.

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