From patients to paintings: VMLY&R, Gilead use AI to create art from breast cancer testimonies

VMLY&R’s bid to clean up again at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is backed by a new collaborator: generative AI. Using the hyped technology, the marketing and comms agency has turned the testimonies of breast cancer patients into paintings for Gilead Sciences—and turned up the heat on Spanish legislators in the process. 

Last summer, VMLY&R took home the Cannes Grand Prix in Pharma for a campaign about technology for creating digital copies of the voices of motor neuron disease patients. The technology enables patients to sound like themselves even as the condition robs them of their voices. 

This time around, VMLY&R has put a different spin on the idea of giving patients a voice. Gilead, which markets breast cancer drug Trodelvy, worked with the agency to use AI to visualize the feelings of people with metastatic triple-negative breast cancer (mTNBC), an aggressive form of the cancer associated with a five-year survival rate of 12%. Natxo Díaz, chief creative officer at VMLY&R Heath Spain, explained the thinking behind the campaign.

“We wanted to give voice, obviously, but we have seen so many testimonials, in so many campaigns," Diaz said in an interview with Fierce Pharma Marketing. "So, we needed to do something else with these testimonials and put them in front of the decision makers, the payers, the general society, and somehow make them understand that these women are still alive, they still have much life inside, and we need to act fast in order to save lives." 

Three patients gave their accounts of living with mTNBC. VMLY&R and Gilead converted the interviews into sound waves. A specially trained AI and robotic arm turned the sound waves into nine paintings that represent the three most important emotional stages of mTNBC. The “Paintings of Hope” were exhibited at major hospitals and congresses in Spain and other parts of Europe. 

The use of technology reflects Gilead’s desire to show how innovative it is, Díaz said, and the belief that translating sound waves into paintings without a human intermediary more directly and scientifically represents the testimonies. A QR code next to the paintings allows people to view videos of patient testimonies and learn how they gave rise to the art. Diaz wants to see more such innovative campaigns.

“In pharma, we really need to be a bit more innovative in the way of telling things, because somehow we are always using the same media, the same methods,” he said. “I think that these kinds of projects can go farther than that.”

VMLY&R calculates the campaign has reached more than 54,000 healthcare professionals and has a media value of 7.5 million euros ($8 million). Politicians were among the top targets of the campaign, leading the team to hang the paintings in the entrance to the Spanish Parliament on the day breast cancer patients and campaigners visited to push for changes to the market access process. The political focus reflects delays that mean Spanish patients wait longer for new medicines than their counterparts in other European countries. 

From 2017 to 2020, the average delay between marketing authorization and reimbursement of new drugs in Spain was 517 days. The lag in Spain is longer than the EU average and far longer than in many other countries in the region. The average in Germany, the fastest country, is 133 days. A  vote passed last year means Spanish patients won’t have to wait as long for metastatic cancer drugs. 

Accelerated market access will translate into revenues for Gilead and its peers. Earlier this month, Gilead reported Trodelvy sales of $680 million for 2022, up 79% on the prior year, and told investors that the Trop-2-directed antibody-drug conjugate is “now reimbursed across the major European markets.”