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The Front Line


The Front Line: Charles D. Blanke, MD, SWOG Chair

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ESMO: A Fresh Perspective on Progress in Cancer Research

October 14, 2016 - I just returned from Copenhagen, where I attended the European Society of Medical Oncology 2016 Congress. ESMO is the leading European organization for medical oncology (duh!) and its membership, as well as meeting attendance, has grown dramatically in the last few years. Likewise, a lot of hot research results are released at the meeting, as evidenced by the fact the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA Oncology, and other high impact journals published at least half a dozen studies presented in Denmark.

Why did I spend SWOG’s hard-earned money to attend a European meeting? Aren’t we, after all, a publicly-funded American cooperative group? Well, please see the paragraph above! The meeting is a reminder that cancer research is a global effort, and it’s always a great way to get the pulse on global findings and best practices. I also appreciate the perspective that crossing the Atlantic provides. Europe offers fresh approaches to trial designs and drugs, research funding models, and policy issues. Europe also reminds me that our struggles, as oncologists and researchers, are often the same. In the face of skyrocketing health care costs, ASCO and ESMO both created committees dedicated to defining, and pursuing, value in oncology. Although they worked alone, both groups came up with very similar interpretations of value and how to better deliver it to patients.

Attending ESMO also provides me a different sort of perspective, one that I really enjoy. I get to see my SWOG colleagues in a new light, among peers from outside the United States. I’m proud to report that our stars shine everywhere. I am happy to highlight their important work, even when it wasn’t SWOG-related. Examples from Copenhagen:

• SWOG Deputy Chair Dr. Anne Schott shared the stage with her University of Michigan colleague (and our breast TM chair and ASCO’s president!) Dr. Dan Hayes, to talk about rare cancers. This joint ASCO-ESMO symposium was chaired by Hayes and ESMO President Dr. Fortunato Ciardiello. Dr. Schott made a brilliant presentation on rare cancer research in SWOG and the rest of the NCI’s National Clinical Trials Network. Some key points: Rare cancers actually represent about 22 percent of all new global cancer cases; the NCTN has pursued rare cancers research for decades with mixed success; and SWOG has encouraged its investigators to be rare cancer leaders. Dr. Schott also stressed the opportunities right now in rare cancers, with precision medicine giving us new treatment advances and with the field providing new drug approval possibilities. Kudos to our deputy chair.

• SWOG Melanoma Chair Dr. Antoni Ribas was all over ESMO16, his name appearing on 13 research posters and presentations. Dr. Ribas also delivered two presentations and served as co-chair on a panel titled “Immunotherapy in Clinical Practice.” On that stage, he spoke about the challenges of assessing patient responses to immunotherapy. Tony nearly had a heart attack when I attended the Melanoma Oral session (I believe he asked, not facetiously, if I were lost. But I do try to keep up as best as I can in areas important to our group). His panel was a really well-attended session, and I’m proud of Dr. Ribas and his work inside and outside of SWOG.

• SWOG Breast Chair Dr. Gabriel Hortobagyi landed a plum spot on the Presidential Symposium, ESMO’s plenary equivalent. These are oral presentations by authors of the very best abstracts containing cutting-edge, practice-changing studies. Sadly (well, not for patients), Dr. Hortobagyi wasn’t presenting a SWOG study. He discussed MONALEESA-2, a Novartis trial, with results demonstrating that the drug LEE011, or ribociclib, significantly extended progression-free survival (by 44 percent!) compared to standard of care for postmenopausal women with hormone receptor positive, human epidermal growth factor receptor-2 negative metastatic breast cancer, when added to letrozole. Results were simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and have made a lot of headlines. Hats off to Dr. Hortobagyi and his co-investigators.

SWOG had a strong presence at ESMO 2016, including Vice Chair Dr. Lee Ellis, AYA Chair Dr. Mark Lewis, Professional Review Chair Dr. Primo Lara, Patient Advocate Vice-Chair Valerie Guild, and GU and digital engagement committee member Dr. Monty Pal. Thanks to everyone for traveling so far. ESMO 2016 had a record number of attendees – 20,522 – and the U.S. had the top number of delegates outside of Europe. I’m glad the worth of ESMO is increasingly being recognized here at home.

Congratulations to SWOG member Dr. Mario Sznol of Yale School of Medicine on your recent election as vice president of the Society of Immunotherapy of Cancer.

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