At this year’s ASCO meeting, thousands of abstracts were presented demonstrating both foundational and pioneering research that will no doubt advance our understanding of cancer.  However, we still don’t have a cure and there is more work to be done. Great scientists, companies and institutions are working every day to help discover new treatment approaches and pathways – from activating the body’s own immune cells to understanding how combination therapies could exponentially improve outcomes for cancer patients.

Over the years, W2O’s Social Oncology Project has profiled some of the most influential physicians, advocates and patients engaged in the oncology conversation online. The key finding in this year’s report was that while the conversation volume continues to grow, there have emerged clear communities that own the dialogue and serve as trusted resources for professionals and patients alike.  These influencers are responsible for helping us cut through the clutter of hashtags and facilitate productive discussion to drive the next breakthroughs in cancer.
The Cancer Research Institute is an organization founded on harnessing the immune system’s power to conquer all cancers. Their work helped to pave the way for one of the most foundational shifts we have seen in cancer treatment today – the field of immunotherapy.  However, their influence goes far beyond facilitating research: CRI was one of the 4 most-shared domains for both patients and advocates in the online cancer conversation this past year.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Jill O’DonnellTormey, chief executive officer and director of scientific affairs for CRI and ask her about the future of oncology research and the important role research plays across the oncology ecosystem – from physicians, advocates, patients and the company’s invested in this area.

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing oncology research today? 

Advances in technology, as well as exponential growth in our fundamental understanding of human biology and cancer biology, have helped to accelerate research and discovery, enabling scientists to do much more, more quickly, than ever before. This has produced significant leaps in cancer treatment, particularly in the area of immunotherapy or immuno-oncology, and has initiated a shift toward personalized medicine based on individual patient profiles. But as the field achieves greater magnitudes of complexity and sophistication, the challenges increase. Scientists must wrestle with the bounty of opportunity, developing keen tools to help them prioritize research directions, so that from the near infinite number of possible therapeutic strategies that are emerging today, we pursue the ones that are most likely to produce the greatest benefit for cancer patients.

What role does the broader oncology community play in supporting cancer research?

Physicians, patients, advocates, and media understand the importance of research, particularly clinical research. Physicians who are treating patients understand that they’re able to do so thanks to advances made possible through research. And those who are conducting clinical trials are themselves integral to the research process. Patients, especially those whose cancers are unlikely to respond to standard treatments, look to research in hope that something new and untried might benefit them. And, of course, patients are essential to carrying out clinical research. Advocates help in many ways, such as encouraging their communities to seek out and participate in clinical trials, shaping broader research agendas to help meet unmet needs, and effecting policy changes to facilitate patient access to promising treatments. The media also play an important role, educating the public about advances in research, as well as the challenges involved in changing the cancer treatment paradigm.

What is one of the most successful collaborations you have seen in oncology research? 

Collaboration is a cornerstone of the Cancer Research Institute’s strategy to make immunotherapy an effective treatment option for all cancer patients. Our multi-year partnership with Stand Up To Cancer to co-fund the CRI-SU2C Cancer Immunology Translational Research Dream Team is one example of how CRI leverages its expertise in cancer immunotherapy and its fundraising power to speed the translation of laboratory discovery into novel cancer therapies and diagnostic tools. SU2C’s Dream Team model has demonstrated its power to bring diverse, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional researchers and supportive roles together and align them along a shared research mission. Our Dream Team united two of the most promising areas of cancer immunotherapy research today: checkpoint blockade and cellular therapy. Experts in these areas are working together to rapidly develop new treatments that harness not only the strengths of each therapeutic approach individually, but also the synergistic effects that can be produced through smart combination strategies. SU2C has applied this Dream Team model across different tumor types and patient demographic categories, and has done so in collaboration with many nonprofit partners. It’s a model that is to be commended.

What would you like to see media who follow oncology reporting on in cancer research?

The media could play a more direct role in advancing cancer research by featuring the nonprofit organizations that are making possible this research and the cancer treatment advances that result. Immunotherapy is one recent example, and one that is of course central to the Cancer Research Institute’s mission. Here we have a field of research that has garnered significant interest and enthusiasm thanks to some dramatic successes seen in treating patients. But, this is only the beginning, and a tremendous amount of research needs to be done if we are ever to realize the full potential of immunotherapy in more and eventually all types of cancer. Public support is the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations like CRI, and most of these organizations can’t afford expensive PR campaigns. Media are in a unique position to raise public awareness of the role of nonprofits and, hopefully, stimulate new interest in and support for these organizations so that they can continue carrying out their lifesaving work. Including the nonprofits in the story isn’t just good journalism; it’s also good corporate citizenship.

How will the future of cancer research help us better define the value a treatment or treatments can bring to patients? 

Value is a complex topic, especially when talking about patients’ lives. What’s the worth of an extra month, an extra year, an extra five years of life, or a complete cure that a treatment might give you? What’s the quality of life a patient will have during and after treatment, and how do you quantify the value of that? That’s an important topic of conversation and one that we believe needs to discussed among all the stakeholders: patients, physicians, insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and patient advocacy organizations. The role of cancer research funding organizations like the Cancer Research Institute is to find the treatments in the first place. Our singular focus on funding the best science is the only thing that has enabled us to contribute so significantly to the body of knowledge that has made today’s treatment breakthroughs possible. Value isn’t within the scope of what research organizations do. But it is an issue that they can affect. Through smarter application of technology and knowledge, we can help to minimize the financial risks associated with drug development by creating treatments that convey optimal benefit on patients—that is to say, a return to a normal, long, cancer-free life. That’s the return on investment CRI seeks, and it’s one we can make possible with continued research.

Are you seeing blended interaction from different communities in oncology when it comes to oncology research and what impact has that had on advancing oncology research?

One of the most remarkable developments in oncology community interaction has been—at least for those who have been in academic research over the past several decades—the willingness that academic and industry entities now have to work together more closely. It’s a willingness borne of necessity, which itself springs from the increasingly complex and nuanced drug discovery and development landscape. Nonprofit organizations have found a new role in brokering relationships between academic and industry agents. CRI’s Clinical Accelerator is a perfect example of this. It harnesses the power of industry and academia to drive innovative clinical research that seeks to answer the most pressing scientific questions, while also delivering the most promising treatments to cancer patients. Speaking of patients, they and their advocates, have become much more proactive in inserting themselves into the clinical research process. The emergence of patient-centered outcomes research, which includes patients, caregivers, clinicians, and other healthcare stakeholders in the process of planning clinical trials, is testament to the increasingly influential role the patient community plays in clinical research.

What’s next in cancer research?

There are many avenues of cancer research, but since my view skews to immunotherapy, I can share some thoughts on that. Much has been made (and deservedly so) of the remarkable clinical responses immunotherapy has produced in some patients. The question before us now is a simple one: why does this patient respond, but that one doesn’t, and what is different about them? To answer this, we will need to analyze tumor and blood samples to determine the biological mechanisms that influence patient response. This is already done in some medical research facilities, but it needs to be done everywhere. Tremendous hurdles stand in the way, but they aren’t insurmountable. Optimizing accuracy of assays that measure important biological variables associated with cancer treatment and patient response is one key hurdle that we must overcome. But even that is a small hurdle compared to the greater challenge of finding a way to get the scientific community (on both the academic as well as industry side) to embrace the power of Big Data and its potential to uncover untold new insights into the immunological control and cure of all cancers at the personalized level. Big Data only works when there’s data to be mined. Getting access to that data, especially data controlled by pharmaceutical companies, will require us to develop new incentives for data sharing. It’s an uphill climb, but it’s attainable, as long as we all remember the reason we’re doing this: to save more lives through the development of more effective cancer treatments.

Download The Social Oncology Project 2016 here.

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