3 ASCO Insights for Pharma Communicators

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The world’s largest cancer research meeting, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting, recently convened in person in Chicago after two years of being held virtually. Like most medical congresses, the meeting was hybrid, featuring content onsite and online, with oncologists, pharmaceutical brands, academics, and healthcare communicators returning to McCormick Place.

Here’s our take on the biggest themes of the meeting and what healthcare brands need to know:

Achieving Diversity & Inclusion in Clinical Trials

The theme of this year’s ASCO was Advancing Equitable Cancer Care Through Innovation. We’re seeing pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies increasingly putting more focus on specific patient communities. Not only are companies advancing more diverse and inclusive clinical trials, but diverse communities are also being included in campaigns to help physicians better understand the spectrum of patients in their communities and practices. Outreach to reduce barriers and improve access to cancer screenings for at-risk populations, including rural and low-income populations, or to educate minority patients at risk for certain cancers by being more attuned to the warning signs are gaining traction. These efforts are critical for improving outcomes and ensuring quality cancer care in historically underrepresented patient populations.

ADC Tech Shifts the Cancer Treatment Paradigm

The big news from ASCO (that received a STANDING OVATION!) was centered on a therapy called Enhertu and positive results in patients with a type of metastatic breast cancer called HER2-low1. Why is this important? Women with HER2 positive metastatic breast cancer historically had limited treatment options beyond chemotherapy. This new data showed that Enhertu enabled women with advanced breast cancer to live six months longer than others treated with conventional chemotherapy. The possibility of using Enhertu in this setting opens a new treatment option for women with metastatic breast cancer and gives them more survival time, which in any advanced cancer is critically important. Further, this class of drugs, called ADCs (antibody drug conjugates) may one day replace conventional chemotherapy.

That’s something for our industry to celebrate.

Precise & Personalized

Another trend we observed at ASCO was the expansion of biomarker-driven therapy, which continues to be a burgeoning area of oncology that is helping usher in a new era of precision medicine. Presentations highlighted the importance of biomarker testing as an essential component of identifying the patients that can benefit from targeted therapy.

In addition, innovation in next-generation gene sequencing and artificial intelligence is accelerating new ways to detect cancer at an earlier stage and identify the right patients for the right therapy to bolster treatment success. This is paradigm-changing for the future of cancer therapy, with broad-ranging impacts for patients and society.

What does this all mean for pharma brands & communicators?

The “big stories” aren’t always in the biggest populations. 

Some of the most noteworthy findings were reported at ASCO in smaller patient populations. For example, the Enhertu trial enrolled 557 women. In one study of just 18 patients with rectal cancer, treatment with a PD-1 antibody resulted in complete remission in all patients. Yet another small study of 110 children ages 1 to 17 with BRAF V600-mutant low-grade glioma found significant increases in overall response rates with two targeted therapies, dabrafenib plus trametinib versus chemotherapy, also potentially practice-changing results. As communications professionals, it’s on us to figure out where each client story needs to be because every story has its audience.

We must look at all pharma communications efforts through a diversity-centric lens. As communications professionals, it is our responsibility to advise all healthcare brands to continue to find new ways to address disparities in care. But how? Ensure representation in clinical trials, develop patient access initiatives, and create materials in different languages and in widespread markets. People from all backgrounds must be able to benefit from our industry’s innovation.

We should be thinking about patient-first programming vs patient-centric messaging. Patient-centric messaging was front and center for many companies at ASCO, and it's wonderful to see patient-first approaches working. But in a sea of sameness, where all companies are claiming to be patient-first, how can pharma brands breakthrough the noise? We strongly recommend approaching all communications initiatives audience-first. This could look like partnering with a patient for an advisory board to develop resources and materials or working with an advocacy group to have resources on-site at congresses. At the end of the day, we must always approach our programming by asking the question, “how will this news get back to the patient and be useful, helpful and impactful to their care?”

Sara Baker is Executive Director, Earned Media, Marina Maher Communications. And Kristine Austria Fan is Senior Vice President, Marina Maher Communications.

1 https://www.astrazeneca.com/media-centre/press-releases/2022/enhertu-efficacy-results-in-her2-low-breast-cancer.html