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ASCO 2011

It's impossible to see everything on offer at the busy ASCO conference.

This year’s ASCO conference has now drawn to a close. Our senior science information manager Julie Sharp reflects on the big stories and talks to Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, about his conference experience.

Looking back on my first experience of an ASCO conference, I’m left wondering how to select the highlights. After all, with so many sessions it’s quite possible that each person who attended could produce a completely different list.

I’m not alone in my dilemma.  Dr Len Lichtenfield, author of the American Cancer Society’s blog, explains:

“I wish I could tell you all the highlights of all the new studies and all of the exciting breakthroughs, but I can’t.  Realistically it is impossible to attend all the sessions, read all of the thousands of abstracts and view the additional thousands of posters that are presented at this meeting.  There is so much information that trying to get one’s arms around even a fraction of what is available is a monstrous effort.”

But regardless of the overwhelming amount of information presented at the conference, our main impression is that the era of personalised medicine is very much upon us and, despite many obstacles, researchers are making very real progress.

More specifically, there were exciting reports of progress in treating specific cancers – including myeloma, melanoma and prostate cancer to name just a few.

I also caught up with our chief executive Harpal Kumar, and asked him for his impressions of this years’ meeting. In his view, the most significant stories at ASCO this year were the announcement of two new melanoma drugs that show great potential for the future, and the news that the drug exemestane could help to prevent breast cancer.

“Although there’s still a lot we don’t know in terms of how many lives could be saved by exemestane and follow up will be important to help answer some of these questions.

“Also of interest were the phase II trial results showing benefit of the PARP inhibitor olaparib in treating ovarian cancer that has returned after previous treatment with platinum-based drugs”, he told us.

We were also interested in his views on how Cancer Research UK’s work fits into the global effort to beat cancer. In his view, Cancer Research UK-funded science wasn’t just there in the form of presentations by researchers we fund, but was also underpinning many of the exciting international trial results.  Harpal explains:

“Our work is present in lots of what you hear at ASCO. For example, there is continued progress in the use of PARP inhibitors, which our scientists have had a long involvement with.

“Even drugs we were first involved with way back in the 1950s – busulphan and melphalan – are still making a difference to today’s patients. Results of an international  phase III trial, presented by Dr Ruth Ladenstein from Austria, showed that these drugs could be used in combination to improve 3 year overall survival from 48 per cent to 60 per cent in children with high-risk neuroblastoma.”

What also shone through was the promise of personalised medicine – treating an individual’s cancer based on the genetic faults that are driving their disease, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach that’s currently used. Harpal explained:

“It’s also obvious that the era of personalised medicine is here – it’s at the core of everything that’s going on – and it’s something that we as a charity are investing in.”

On that topic, he was extremely encouraged by the situation in the UK compared with the US. For example, our centralised healthcare system allows us to standardise the way things like genetic testing are implemented – something that is difficult to do in the fragmented, privatised healthcare landscape in the US.

“In the USA testing is being led by individual centres, each with their own assays that are specific to that particular lab. The big difference is that in the UK we are trying to make it systematic and standardise the quality so the tests can be rolled out to all patients. The aim of the stratified medicine programme that we are piloting is to roll this testing out across the whole of the NHS.”

Although the ASCO conference is over for another year, the themes and issues raised will be discussed for many months to come – and will likely surface at the UK equivalent, the NCRI cancer conference, in November this year.

Until then, you can read more conference highlights in the ASCO news summary. We’ll also be selecting a few interesting topics as the basis of future blog posts, so watch this space.

Julie