2020 ASCO Presidential Address Focuses on ‘Unite and Conquer: Accelerating Progress Together’

Excerpt From the ASCO20 Virtual Scientific Program Opening Session Presentation

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The world is grappling with a pandemic and we are all adjusting to a new reality. Fewer handshakes, more masks. Fewer hugs, more fear. COVID-19 has tested us, challenged us, changed us. It’s changed the way we look, the way we work, the way we socialize.

It’s changed us, but it can’t stop us.

It can’t weaken our resolve, our collective strength, our determination. We—the ASCO global community—are absolutely unwilling to let anything stop us in our fight against cancer. We may not be in the same room for this year’s Annual Meeting, but we are more united than ever.

When I chose my Annual Meeting theme, “Unite and Conquer: Accelerating Progress Together,” early last year, I never imagined that it would take on new meaning just 12 months later.

Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO

Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO

While normally we would be together in the great halls of Chicago’s McCormick Place, this year, the convention center is a living symbol of uniting to conquer. The Army Corp of Engineers has transformed the center into a massive tent city for patients with COVID-19. This is especially meaningful for me, since the Army Corps of Engineers was my branch of the military after I graduated from West Point in 1981. I want to personally thank the Army—and, as a veteran, to thank all of the members of the military—for their dedication during this difficult time.

But what strikes me the most is that the commitment of the military, the city of Chicago, and everyone focused on saving patients with COVID-19 mirror our consistent, ongoing, and unwavering dedication to saving the lives of our patients with cancer. We know that people with cancer are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and ASCO is working to ensure that our patients receive the highest-quality care.

We’re collecting data on how COVID-19 is impacting our patients through our new ASCO Registry and CancerLinQ, which this year crossed a milestone of 2.5 million patients. These data will help inform our Road to Recovery, a new initiative to create a coronavirus recovery blueprint for research and practice. We’ve established the COVID Impacts Cancer Fund through Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation to support patients, practices, and researchers. We will continue to unite and conquer cancer, because that’s what we at ASCO always do.

This concept is not only my presidential theme, it is my life theme. What has always inspired and driven me is the power of connections—of relationships between people with great minds, and great intentions, to achieve great things.

I am not just talking about oncologists. I’m talking about all of the various stakeholders who work to advance therapies and improve cancer care. The pharmacists, nurses, office staffs, laboratory scientists, practice administrators, and academic researchers. I hope you hear me! I’m talking about pharma and biotech, payers, governments, and regulators. All of us together make up the ecosystem that is the global cancer community of ASCO.

Most importantly, I’m talking about our patients. They are the reason we do what we do. They are also our partners in fighting this disease.

I went into oncology because of the patients. Time after time, I have been awed by their courage and their gratitude for the opportunity to participate in clinical trials of new agents. Without their collaboration we could not do the work we do. United with them, we do accelerate progress against cancer.

I really came to appreciate the power of teamwork at West Point and early in my medical career. I was so fortunate to have wonderful teachers and mentors, including my military attendings at Brooke Army Medical Center—Drs. Thomas Brown, Timothy O’Rourke, and Terry Jenkins, among others—and at The University of Texas San Antonio—including David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award winner Dr. Daniel Von Hoff. They introduced me to what would become my passion: cancer drug development and phase I clinical trials.

It was exciting to see what we could accomplish together. I was blessed to work, not only with these great doctors, but also with active therapies such as the taxanes—paclitaxel and docetaxel—as my first investigational agents, along with the topoisomerase inhibitors—topotecan and irinotecan—as well as gemcitabine. It was motivating to see tumors shrink and patients get better, and to see these chemotherapies move into phase II and III studies. Precision medicine and molecular profiling were but a dream back then, and immunotherapy consisted of IL-2/LAK and interferon.

The science captured my imagination, and my colleagues and mentors inspired me. But again, the bravery of the patients affected me most of all. During my 10 years in San Antonio, more than 100 volunteers stepped forward to take that first-in-human investigational therapy.

In 1997, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to create a drug development unit and bring phase I clinical trials to a community setting. I moved to Nashville and joined Tennessee Oncology and the research institute now known as Sarah Cannon. It’s hard to believe now, but 23 years ago, the idea of doing early-phase, investigational cancer trials outside an academic medical center was unthinkable—but back then, just as now, most patients were treated in community care settings. There was an urgent need to bring clinical trials closer to patients—so that’s what we did.

Sarah Cannon is a story of firsts: the first center to conduct investigational cancer trial work outside a university; the first community-based research network consisting of private practices; and the first community-based phase I drug development program. I like to think that we were pioneers in modernizing the clinical trial process, taking the studies and treatments to patients in the communities where they live.

Most amazingly, more than 400 times during the last 20 years, one of our patients has volunteered to participate at the start of a first-in-human study. I am so proud of our patients and of our entire team.

From nurses to administrators, lab techs to data coordinators, dedicated individuals at Sarah Cannon and other practices around the world are uniting to fight cancer, every day.

The philosophy that we are strongest together is not only the driving force behind my career and organization, it’s the reason I have been so thrilled and honored to serve as your President, because that’s exactly what ASCO is all about. We are united in our mission to reduce the global burden of cancer.

Last October, in Bangkok, we held ASCO’s first global oncology innovation summit, Breakthrough. Hundreds of professionals united to collaborate and advance the field of oncology. We learned about patient wearables for collecting data in clinical studies, using virtual reality to ease pain, and altering patients’ microbiomes to improve outcomes. Perhaps what was most exciting for me was seeing the potential of technology to lower the barriers to health-care research and development so that scientists, engineers, technologists, entrepreneurs, doctors, and patients can work together across countries and companies to develop new medicines faster. It sounds futuristic, but innovative open-access platforms are already making it happen.

The energy and sense of unity in the fight against cancer were palpable at Breakthrough. We’re already planning the next meeting for August 2021 in Japan. It’s all part of strengthening our global reach to better serve our international members and partners, and, ultimately, our patients.

ASCO is breaking down more than geographic barriers: promoting racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in our workforce; making diversity a key part of our meetings, from attendees to speakers and panel members; and also making diversity in expertise and experience a priority. This last cause is especially dear to my heart. I’ve served as a doctor for the military, in academia, and in private practice. I’ve been a physician executive, a clinical researcher, a drug developer, and a community oncologist. I am 100% committed to the idea that everyone who works for patients is part of ASCO’s mission.

ASCO needs all of you—serving on our committees and task forces, connecting and collaborating to solve the complex problems of cancer. Together, we are a powerhouse.

I want to give a shout-out to all our amazing ASCO volunteers and prospective volunteers. Thousands of you all over the world want to help, and we hear you. We are actively working to expand opportunities for engagement with ASCO. We have new regional councils worldwide and a flourishing Volunteer Corps. ASCO is and always has been an organization of volunteers, and we appreciate and value what everyone has to offer, because you are how we accelerate progress.

In addition to progress in research, ASCO is extremely focused on ensuring that every patient has access: access to care, access to clinical trials, access to the latest therapies, and access to all of this closer to home.

In September, ASCO volunteers descended on Congress and held more than 160 meetings on behalf of the bipartisan CLINICAL TREATMENT Act. This important bill requires Medicaid to cover routine costs of participating in clinical trials, including doctor visits and lab studies, so more patients—especially underrepresented minorities—can access treatment advances. We are thrilled with the support the bill has received and hope to see it become law. This would be a victory for ASCO and for our patients.

Right now, with health-care policy changes and rising costs, the need for advocacy is greater than ever. That’s why, this year, we formed the Association for Clinical Oncology, a professional organization with expanded opportunities for political and lobbying activities. The Association is working on issues that are especially important during the pandemic, such as continued Medicare coverage for telehealth and financial support for oncology practices, as well as ensuring robust federal funding for research on the prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer.

This brings me to another cause close to my heart: Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, where I served on the Board before I became ASCO President. Conquer Cancer continues to drive breakthroughs in clinical research and care. This year, for example, they’re funding research in brain, kidney, and pediatric cancers, as well as in sarcoma and immunotherapy.

None of this would be possible without your support. I want to extend my sincere gratitude to all of our members for helping us meet our fundraising goals. But the mission has become even more critical. COVID-19 is now part of the global burden and it’s our job to make sure our patients are cared for—and our oncology colleagues are supported—during this crisis.

As I mentioned earlier, Conquer Cancer has a new fund: the COVID Impacts Cancer Fund. One of my goals for this year’s Annual Meeting was to ask each of you to make a donation to Conquer Cancer, and with that participation, to raise $1 million dollars. My hope is that we can still achieve this goal. We have made donating easy—simply text “ASCO” to 41444 on your phone or make your gift at -CONQUER.ORG/ASCO.

Maybe you will be inspired to give by a researcher’s discovery during the ASCO20 Virtual Scientific Program, or to honor a frontline worker you know, or perhaps for that special patient.

My wife, Karen, and I are funding a Conquer Cancer Young Investigator Award in honor of one of my best friends, Jon Nebel. Despite having access to our extensive trial menu of novel therapies and my network of prostate cancer experts, Jon passed away last fall from prostate cancer. His death hit me hard and made me realize how far we still have to go in fighting this disease. Karen and I felt there was no better way to honor Jon than to invest in a young researcher who may give other patients the chance to live a longer life.

If everyone unites to give, we can raise $1 million, and with it, we can continue the work to conquer every cancer, for every patient, everywhere. ASCO is the heart and soul of the cancer community. I know we can do it.

As I conclude my year as your President, I am optimistic. Just as COVID-19 researchers are racing to develop vaccines and treatments for a new disease, our global cancer community is using technology to speed up research and development against a disease that is all too familiar. We have always collaborated to make progress. I am more confident than ever that we—united—will continue to accelerate progress and, ultimately, will conquer cancer.

So, for my family: my parents, my wife, children, and grandchildren who stand by me always. For my Sarah Cannon team. For all of you. For the science. But, most of all, for our brave patient volunteers. It has been the privilege of my life to serve as your ASCO President. I am deeply humbled and filled with gratitude. Thank you for your engagement, your commitment, and your trust in me.

Together, we will accelerate progress for all those who desperately need us, and we will forever be united. Let’s do this! 

Editor’s note: Excerpt has been edited for length, style, and clarity.

© 2020. American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.