A Look at What Is Coming Through the Pipeline for Cancer Research: A Q&A with Astellas’ Josh Schafer

A Look at What Is Coming Through the Pipeline for Cancer Research: A Q&A with Astellas’ Josh Schafer

06.09.14 | By Josh Schafer, MSc. MBA

With the recent conclusion of ASCO, we sat down with Josh Schafer, Astellas’ Vice President of Oncology Marketing Strategy, to get his perspective on the current state of affairs surrounding cancer research. Like many in his field, Josh attended ASCO’s Annual Meeting and was inspired by the scientific community coming together to engage in idea-sharing, dialogue and learning. Prior to ASCO, he participated in in the following question and answer session previewing some of the important and innovative new science that Astellas ultimately shared at the conference. Don’t forget to click through to the videos and watch his responses.

Q: What is your and Astellas’ perspective on the exciting science coming out of ASCO for patients and the system overall?

A: Astellas is proud to be a part of ASCO and a part of this forum that allows for great scientific exchange within the medical oncology community. In particular for Astellas, we are releasing and presenting new data around drugs within our pipeline. It’s an opportunity for us to share those data and get feedback from the medical community on how this can be put into clinical practice. It’s also a chance for us to learn about other innovations that [are] coming out of academic institutions and some of our industry partners. Overall, it’s a great opportunity for the industry to come together and engage in scientific exchange and dialogue.

See video of the response here.

Q: In an era of cost containment, how can we as an industry better demonstrate the value of our medicines?

A: As an industry we have to continue to develop drugs that offer the greatest benefit to patients.  But, we must also demonstrate the value of these new medicines to the healthcare systems around the world. At Astellas, our goal is to develop drugs that extend the overall survival for patients living with cancer and to improve their quality of life. But we’re also engaging with payers across the globe to better understand what other end-points are important to them beyond overall survival that will help demonstrate the economic as well as the clinical benefits.

Patient-centeredness is becoming a real buzzword across the industry and it’s an important theme for healthcare systems across the world as well. To that end, at Astellas we are including instruments such as patient-reported outcomes in our clinical studies, which are reports that come directly from the patient regarding his or her condition, without interpretation by a clinician or anyone else. By capturing these data and reporting them back out, it helps us to measure and demonstrate part of the value of our medicines.

See video of the response here.

Q: We heard about some of the interesting innovation, but what are the greatest hurdles that you see to realizing the potential of science to better treat cancers?

A: While we’ve made some great progress in cancer research, there are still some hurdles to really fully realizing our full ability. One is the ability to make sure we have sustained and increased funding of basic research so that we can continue to bring new innovation through the pipeline. The other is that federal budgets, such as the NIH budget, have shrunk in real terms recently and we need to make sure the funding of these opportunities continues to grow. And we also need to create a sustained influx of young scientists and people who can actually innovate and help create new ideas, who want to go both into academic research and industrial research, and can help move these new innovations through the pipeline.

See video of the response here.

Q: How do some of the new cancer medicines bring value to patients and the healthcare system overall?

A: There’s been significant progress and continues to be significant progress made against cancer, but according to the American Association for Cancer Research nearly 14 million people are considered cancer survivors today, compared with only 3 million cancer survivors 30 years ago. This statistic really points out that cancer medicines have had a significant impact on the overall survival of the patients and have dramatically improved the quality of lives for many.

The cancer advances have also helped in identifying the right patients for these various treatments. As our understanding of the underlying science increases, we are better able to identify those patients who will receive the clinical benefit and just as importantly identify those patients who might not respond to or may have an adverse reaction to specific treatments. These things together can reduce the overall burden on the patient and the healthcare system.

See video of the response here.

Josh closed by providing his thoughts on cancer innovation trends:

A: There are a lot of really exciting innovations in cancer research today. The first is that we now have a much better understanding about drug resistance and how certain patients are developing resistance to existing therapies. This research is leading to new therapies that [are] identifying patients who might have a gene mutation and are now able to be treated with drugs where previously they were not. Examples of that are T790 Mutations in non-small cell lung cancer patients and also the alk-inhibitors and patients who have developed resistance to those inhibitors.

Another area of innovation is around antibody drug conjugates and that’s a technology in which you take a naked antibody and you conjugate it to a toxin to be able to provide much more targeted, direct effect on those cancer cells. That’s an area where Astellas has invested, through our partner Agensys.  We have several new drugs coming through our pipeline based on that technology.

Probably the most exciting area for innovation right now, and at ASCO this year, is around immuno-oncology, and this is a technology that stimulates one’s own immune system to fight the cancer cells. There’s some great new science coming out around some of the check point inhibitors, as well as the chimeric antigen receptor t-cell inhibitors, which are engineered cells to kill cancer. Overall there’s a lot of great, innovative new science coming out of ASCO this year.

See video of the response here.

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