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ASCO

ASCO is huge - and not everything is about new drugs

In her third and final report from this year’s ASCO conference, Nell Barrie reflects on her personal highlights of the meeting.

Even though ASCO is one of the world’s biggest cancer treatment conferences, it’s not all about new drugs. Some of the most interesting sessions focused on topics as diverse as politics, social media and the challenges of getting older patients into clinical trials.

It was sobering to hear about the global impact of cancer – the economic cost of the disease in the next 10 years, in terms of lost productivity, is expected to top $40 trillion. That’s the equivalent of 75 per cent of the entire world’s productivity in 2010. Several passionate speakers, including Dr John Seffrin of the American Cancer Society, argued that cancer should be on every politician’s radar.

After the first WHO summit on cancer and other ‘non-communicable’ diseases in 2011, the pressure is on to ensure real commitments are made to tackle this huge problem. Co-operation between non-governmental organisations across the globe will be key – and Cancer Research UK is determined to keep cancer at the top of the UK political agenda.

Elderly cancer patients

Another great session focused on a strangely under-represented group of cancer patients – elderly ones. While it’s true that cancer is a disease of older people, the fact remains that patients over the age of 65 can find it hard to join clinical trials. They’re often already taking multiple medications, and are more likely to be frail, making them ineligible for many trials because they might be unable to cope with the treatments involved.

But this situation leaves doctors with a big problem – there is little evidence on the best way to treat older patients. Coupled with the fact that some of these patients are more interested in good quality of life than a cure, this adds up to a situation where many older patients probably aren’t getting the care that’s best for them.

One step towards a solution could involve more ‘observational studies’ – instead of running trials with older volunteers, researchers could rely on ‘natural’ trials by comparing the outcomes for many older patients who happen to be having the same treatments. This approach isn’t as reliable as more strictly controlled trials, but the evidence could still be really valuable. Older patients are a growing group who deserve just as much attention as their younger counterparts.

Social media

Last but not least, it was great to hear that more doctors are dipping a toe into the murky waters of social media. In a session attended by committed tweeters and luddites alike, we heard from three doctors who have seen the benefits of engaging with patients and colleagues online. As they explained, “our patients are online, so that’s where we need to be too” – if only to counteract the deluge of misleading medical information that many patients encounter on the internet.

Along with Cancer Research UK’s own efforts to engage patients online, The Mayo Clinic in the US seems to be leading the way. It has helped its doctors to set up Facebook pages and even answers patients’ questions on their ‘walls’, as long as no confidentiality concerns apply. Dr Anas Younes from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas explained how he had produced videos about clinical trials for YouTube, helping to explain the process to patients interested in taking part.

Social media can also be a valuable and speedy tool for doctors to share new research results – exemplified by the flurry of tweets during the ASCO conference.

Once again ASCO was an exciting and inspiring event, a valuable illustration of the power of research to make a real difference to patients’ lives, now and in the future. Targeted treatments and immunotherapy show the great progress being made, and an ever-growing number of trials are bringing us closer to solving the huge problem that is cancer.