ASCO Names Advance of the Year: Molecular Profiling Drives Progress in Gastrointestinal Cancers

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Molecular profiling allows clinicians to identify the molecular and genetic signatures that help to deliver treatments that are highly specific to a tumor. This tool has made possible a number of advances in the past year that are improving care for patients with gastrointestinal cancers. In recognition of this progress, ASCO has named Molecular Profiling Driving Progress in Gastrointestinal Cancers as the Advance of the Year in Clinical Cancer Advances 2021. The report was also published by Smith et al in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.1

This ASCO report on annual progress against cancer—now in its 16th year—also catalogs a year’s worth of significant research advances, highlights areas of research opportunities, and reinforces the importance of federal funding for cancer research.

Advance of the Year

Gastrointestinal cancers account for 26% of the global cancer incidence and 35% of all cancer-related deaths, according to a report published by Arnold et al in Gastroenterology.2 The ability to molecularly profile a gastrointestinal tumor has expanded the treatment options for patients with gastrointestinal cancers—extending survival, while minimizing adverse effects.  

“Molecular profiling tools such as next-generation sequencing give us the ability to identify specific molecular- and genomic-targeted treatments that are likely to benefit an individual patient. Personalized medicine is becoming a reality,” said ASCO Board Chairman Howard A. “Skip” Burris, III, MD, FACP, FASCO.

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

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

In the past year, research has shown that targeting human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) improves survival in gastric cancer and shows promise for patients with HER2-positive colorectal cancer. Therapy is now approved that targets specific BRAF gene mutations in metastatic colorectal cancer. These advances are moving the treatment of gastrointestinal cancers closer to personalized medicine. 

Achieving Equity in Cancer Research

The report includes an examination of health inequities in cancer care and clinical research. National and global events of the past year have highlighted health inequities as one of the greatest challenges currently facing medicine and society more broadly. Disparities in cancer outcomes are rooted, in some respects, in the development of novel diagnostics and therapeutics—the clinical research that demonstrates the efficacy and safety of new cancer treatments.

The underrepresentation of minority groups in cancer research contributes to disparities in cancer care and outcomes by failing to provide the evidence that clinicians need to safely treat minority patients with cancer. The report outlines strategies and actions that can be used to lower the barriers to clinical trial participation and thereby increase the diversity of trial participants. Such strategies include broadened trial eligibility, expanding trial geographic availability, and financial assistance, among others.

Research Priorities to Accelerate Progress Against Cancer

This year, ASCO added artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning in cancer research to its list of Research Priorities to Accelerate Progress Against Cancer. AI has the potential to drive diagnostic, therapeutic, and translational cancer research. In particular, research should focus on the use of AI in diagnosing cancer based on biospecimen analysis; enhancing and improving radiographic imaging, interpretation, and reporting; and integrating large amounts of clinical data to aid clinical decision-making and measurement of clinical outcomes.

“While clinical research has resulted in longer survival and better quality of life for many patients with cancer, we can’t rest on our laurels. With ASCO’s Research Priorities to Accelerate Progress Against Cancer, we continually evaluate and highlight critical gaps in cancer prevention and care that we believe to be most pressing and where opportunities for rapid progress are greatest. These priorities are intended to guide the direction of research and accelerate progress,” said Dr. Burris.

Progress in a Pandemic: Cancer Research Funding at Risk

The COVID-19 public health emergency threatens to reverse years of momentum in cancer research. Laboratories conducting cancer research have closed, or space has been redirected to COVID-19 research. Clinical trials have halted or slowed, creating a costly loss in research progress and delays in patient access to potentially life-saving treatments.

Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FSCT, FASCO

Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FSCT, FASCO

The National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute need emergency funding—on top of a robust annual increase to their baseline budgets—to mitigate disruptions caused by the pandemic and get the nation’s biomedical research enterprise up and running again. Even minor funding cuts can have a major impact on cancer research.

“Stable, predictable funding increases will allow our nation to continue to build on the promise of today’s research and improve outcomes for all patients with cancer,” said ­Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FSCT, FASCO, former Chief Medical Officer and Executive Vice President of ASCO. 


1. Smith SM, Wachter K, Burris HA, et al: Clinical cancer advances 2021: Report on progress against cancer. J Clin Oncol. February 2, 2021 (early release online).

2. Arnold M, Abnet CC, Neale RE, et al: Global burden of 5 major types of gastrointestinal cancer. Gastroenterology 159:335-349, 2020.