by Professor Martine Piccart

The industry simply does not have the expertise to develop the best drugs on its own. Companies must have access to clinical specialists – and the general public needs to understand the importance of this unique interaction between pharma and cancer experts, says Professor Martine Piccart, President of the European Cancer Organisation, ECCO

As someone who has long experience of working with the pharmaceutical industry to advance experimental drugs in clinical development, Professor Martine Piccart believes this collaboration is critical to improving cancer care. “Pharma designs compounds, but it does not have the direct expertise to develop them in an optimum way,” she says. The key missing ingredients are real life clinical experience and access to patients.

The support provided by industry is vital to educate fellow practitioners on scientific and medical breakthroughs. Over the course of her career, Professor Piccart has been involved in a number of clinical trials, seeing at first-hand how important industry interaction with medical experts has been in bringing new cancer treatments through to approval and having that knowledge passed to other clinicians.

This interaction is becoming even more critical with the advent of precisely targeted cancer drugs. Drugs that are aimed at specific receptors, designed to be suitable for patients exhibiting particular genomic biomarkers, or intended for use at different stages of disease, have the potential to significantly improve cancer care and survival rates, an objective that Professor Piccart has put at the heart of her mission as President of ECCO.

New drugs and diagnostics coming through development and onto the market offer important alternatives, enabling care to be tailored, and underpinning the rise of personalised medicine. As a result, the treatment of cancer is becoming more complex and more multidisciplinary. Educating practitioners is an essential partner in delivering these improvements.

Transparency is right, but communication is critical

While doctors already routinely declare any potential conflicts of interest, the move to itemising payments from named companies to specific individuals could lead to a misapprehension among the public. “What the public might understand – wrongly – with the new policy is that the pharma industry is paying doctors – and doctors are making money,” Professor Piccart says.

Bluntly stating that Doctor A received €1,500 from Company B to attend an advisory board meeting risks fuelling this misunderstanding, and could adversely affect doctor-patient relationships. “It has to be translated so the public understands why the payment was made,” says Professor Piccart.

Rather than the bald facts, the record should state what the advisory board meeting was held to discuss and why. “You need to communicate the whole context,” Professor Piccart says.

Beyond clinical development, the increasing specificity of approved cancer therapies also increases the need for ongoing medical education to ensure patients get access, and that these new drugs are used in the most appropriate way.

Education of clinicians is facilitated by the pharma companies that discovered and developed the drugs and which financially support educational sessions during international meetings. This education is clearly central to ensuring therapies are used to their best effect, believes Professor Piccart. “Things are moving quickly and there is a lot to assimilate,” she says.

Given that a course of cancer treatment is increasingly likely to involve a number of different targeted therapies being administered either sequentially or in combination, Professor Piccart would like to see educational meetings and conferences having multiple industry sponsors and articulating how individual treatments fit into the bigger picture.

At the same time, it should be acknowledged that speaking at meetings involves a lot of work for physicians. Payments must be declared, but it needs to be made clear to the general public that there is nothing wrong in a doctor receiving a fee for this service, Professor Piccart concludes.