ESMO’s new focus on cancer prevention


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

John Whyte, MD: Welcome, everyone. I’m Dr John Whyte. I’m the chief medical officer at WebMD, and I’m joined today by Fabrice André. He is the chair of the scientific committee at the European Society for Medical Oncology, where we are today in Paris, France. Bonjour, Fabrice.

So, remind our viewers: What is ESMO? What does it do? And why is it so important?

Fabrice André, MD, PhD: First ESMO, is a scientific society – a member-based organization with around 25,000 members.

Dr. Whyte: Equivalent to ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) in the United States, correct?

Dr. André: It has members worldwide, from all over the world. And it aims at disseminating science, educating. The name is European, so it has some roots in Europe; but it is really a global organization for education, dissemination, and also more and more to generate frameworks for the standards of treatment and the common terminology for healthcare professionals to better care for patients.

Dr. Whyte: What are you most excited by at this conference in terms of the innovations that are being discussed?

Dr. André: Today we are at ESMO 2022 in Paris, with 28,000 people registered and the vast majority on site, and what has been the editorial line – the tagline – for the scientific committee is “understand the disease to better treat the patient.” This is extremely important; all of the educational program is built on this tagline, meaning that we need to understand what are the mechanisms of cancer progression? What are the determinants of outcomes if we want to integrate all the wealth of innovation that is coming?

So, then, what are the new things? In the Presidential Symposium, where we usually have the very new things, we will have very important presentations on the role of pollution on cancer and the biological mechanism that induces cancer. Why is it important? First, it has impact on public health. But also, it’s important because, for us, it’s raising the signal that the oncology community must start to invest in this field of prevention.

Dr. Whyte: I was at your booth, by the way, the ESMO booth here, and you have two bicycles, which impressed me. Nobody was on them, I might point out, but the focus was on prevention. But let’s also address how historically, the academic community, the scientific community hasn’t really been focused on prevention. It’s about treatment. So it’s fascinating that you’re talking about prevention, because usually we talk about precision medicine, right? We talk about checkpoint inhibitors; we talk about immunomodulators. And here you’re saying, “Hey, John, we need to understand how we prevent cancer,” which is really a misnomer in a way, because there are many different diseases. Would you agree with that?

Dr. André: I fully agree with you. But what is the premise we are trying to address here? The premise is that prevention has always been very low in the agenda of international conferences. And we think we want to give the signal that it’s really time now that clinical infrastructure, hospitals, invest in this field, create teams dedicated to prevention, new structures for prevention. Why? Because we are discovering step by step that it could be that some drugs we use for patients with cancer could also be developed in the field of prevention. And for this, we need the oncologists. So, more and more, our conviction is that it is the oncology community that will transform the field of prevention, and we need to invest now. Having said that, we have two very important abstracts on this question. The other one is about early cancer detection. But of course, we have our traditional session on immunotherapeutics, precision medicine, and all the wealth of randomized trials. And so in this field, for patients with cancer, what is the new information?

Dr. Whyte: We have this whole continuum. So you talk about prevention – how much cancer is preventable? Eighty percent? Seventy percent? What do you estimate?

Dr. André: You know, I’m also a scientist. So as a scientist, I will say that there is no limit for this question. No, the only limit is the knowledge.

Dr. Whyte: Well, there is some inherited mutation, so we do know that.

Dr. André: We can just go to the current status – what we know now – but I don’t see why we would put some limit on how much we can prevent cancer. But indeed, so far, what are the risk factors? Genetics, hereditary cancer, all habits, and we know them. It’s about tobacco, alcohol, sun, some sexual behavior, etc., that indeed account. In France, we say that around 40% of cancer could be preventable.

Dr. Whyte: More and more, we learn about the issues of gout, other inflammatory diseases; it can have an association, but then we have early screening as well. So, if we’re on this continuum, how excited are you by what’s happening with liquid biopsies, with other testing? Because if we can get a cancer instead of at 500,000 cells at the time of imaging, at 10 or 50 cells, while there are fragments, that’s revolutionary, isn’t it?

Dr. André: I fully agree with you. We will have an important trial presented during ESMO that is the first prospective trial testing the device called Galleri, a tool for early cancer detection based on ctDNA (circulating tumor DNA) analysis by methylation pattern.

Dr. Whyte: General screening of the population or a more tailored population with certain indications? Because right now, most of those have focused on a limited population or are used for patients who already have a cancer, and testing that way – you think it’s going to be broader?

Dr. André: What this trial is investigating is in participants who do not have cancer, 6,000 participants ...

Dr. Whyte: Pas de tout? No cancer at all?

Dr. André: No cancer.

Dr. Whyte: No family history?

Dr. André: They can have family history, but no detectable cancer – can ctDNA analysis detect cancer? And the answer is, indeed, there is around 1% positivity, and around 40% of them, indeed, had cancer. So why is it important? Because it’s really a landmark prospective trial that is telling us that a device based on ctDNA can detect cancer at early stage. Then, how many cancers? What percentage?

Dr. Whyte: Which type of cancer?

Dr. André: And is it going to have an impact on outcome? And for all the questions, we don’t have the answer here. But the answer we have here today is that with this device, done prospectively, you can detect some cancer that would not be detectable without symptoms.

Dr. Whyte: It’s only going to get better, too.

Dr. André: Yeah. So then the next step is improving technology, integrating this technology with other ones we already have, in order to increase the percentage of patients in which we detect cancer at an earlier stage.

Dr. Whyte: What about pancreatic cancer, cancers we can’t detect through screening? People forget that most cancers cannot be detected through screening, so we need better tools. We do know that there are inherited mutations. Those really aren’t preventable in many ways; the goal is to get them early. So then we move to treatments, and you talked about precision medicine. What excites you about what’s going on these days at ESMO right now.

Dr. André: We have many trials on precision medicine. We will have two randomized trials that investigate two new targets; one is gamma secretase inhibitor. So, it’s a first-in-class, first time we even hear about this target at a clinical conference. And the second highly expected trial is a clinical trial in patients with metastatic lung cancer, KRAS mutated, testing sotorasib, which is a KRAS inhibitor, and showing the magnitude of improvement associated with sotorasib. The trial is positive, and it improved PFS [progression-free survival] in these patients. So these are two new targets that are validated at this conference.


Recommended Reading

Blood test for multiple cancers: Many false positives
Biden’s Cancer Moonshot turns its focus to early-detection blood tests
A farewell to arms? Drug approvals based on single-arm trials can be flawed
Experts sound alarm on ruling threatening preventive cancer care
Is early-onset cancer an emerging global epidemic?