Astellas puts health inequality front and center in cancer innovation challenge's 5th year

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Astellas Oncology returns with its fifth C3 Prize challenge looking for solutions for cancer patient problems that became more difficult in 2020. (Astellas)

Astellas Oncology is the old guard of the pharma industry when it comes to innovation challenges. Its Changing Cancer Care (C3) Prize recently kicked off its fifth year of looking for crowdsourced solutions for oncology patients.

The prizes are bigger—$200,000 in total awards now—and the innovation challenge space is more populated, but the mission to find outside-the-box ideas remains the same.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice dominating headlines and pointing out systemic social problems, Astellas is especially interested this year in ideas that address health inequalities. For instance, the pandemic has made transportation problems—a pain point for patients, and a typical submission theme—even worse.

Care navigation is another frequent theme that's been made more difficult by the pandemic, with canceled and postponed visits and switches to less personalized and sometimes glitchy telemedicine.

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Mark Reisenauer, senior vice president of Astellas' U.S. oncology business, has shepherded the project since the beginning and seen thousands of ideas come through the door. Last year, the company received more than 200 entries.

Some have stuck with him, like the first year’s winning virtual reality app to help reduce anxiety and pain for children going through treatment. Creator Diane Jooris has since commercialized her idea, OnComfort, with Astellas' support and continues to grow her business. Astellas does not take financial stakes in any C3 company ideas.

Another idea he recalled fondly was from a pediatric oncology nurse who dressed up chemotherapy IV poles in superhero costumes to put kids at ease and tell them about the superpowers flowing from the often-dreaded medicine bags.

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“The reason we do this program is we want to provide impact beyond medicine for patients living with cancer,” Reisenauer said. “Our medicines are only part of the solution, probably a relatively small part of the solution actually. By doing this innovation contest hopefully, we can bring forward and nurture some ideas that will help patients and their caregivers.”

Ideas can be submitted at through Sept. 28. The judges’ panel this year is led by celebrity entrepreneur and cancer activist Bill Rancic. Winners will be awarded prize money and support, including a one-year membership to Chicago-based healthcare tech incubator Matter.

Astellas’ growing oncology portfolio includes acute myeloid leukemia treatment Xospata, Pfizer-shared prostate cancer blockbuster Xtandi and Padcev, the bladder cancer drug it shares with with Seattle Genetics.