ESMO: Rain in Spain doesn't dampen spirits of 33,000 oncologists

MADRID—Attendees for the European Society for Medical Oncology Congress 2023 arrived in Madrid to torrential downpours Thursday evening, a gloomy atmosphere that did not reflect the overall excitement of an industry conference that promised to showcase breakthroughs in breast, lung and prostate cancers.

ESMO posters 2023
Conference attendees view the latest poster presentations on Sunday afternoon at the ESMO Congress. (Annalee Armstrong/Fierce Biotech)

It was a return, if you can call it that, to normal after several years of pandemic interruption. But this year seemed to go even bigger than ever before.

“It's got a buzz and a vibe that isn't always at every Congress or conference,” said Merus CEO Bill Lundberg. “It just feels like people are busier, they're more excited. They're really excited about a number of the programs and presentations. So it feels like this is a good Congress.”

An estimated 33,000 people walked the halls over the weekend, all jostling to hear the latest and greatest in cancer care. This is where good science gets even better, MD Anderson’s Timothy Yap, Ph.D., told Fierce Biotech on the sidelines.

“It's not just about looking at the research and attending talks, but also it gives us an opportunity to meet with different companies and collaborators—and to be honest, that's what I've been doing. All day,” said Yap, vice president and head of clinical development in the Therapeutics Discovery Division at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “So it's been back to back, just discussing trials and new ideas and that kind of thing. Genuinely.”

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One of the major research highlights was Seagen and Astellas’ antibody-drug conjugate Padcev plus Merck & Co.’s Keytruda in previously untreated bladder cancer patients. Seagen heralded the results, which showed the combo reduced the risk of death by 53% compared to chemo, as “practice changing.” The Sunday presentation was interrupted by a lengthy standing ovation.

Other big headlines were Eli Lilly’s RET inhibitor Retevmo achieving dramatic improvements in certain lung and thyroid cancers.

ESMO Congress 2023 opener
The Congress opened Friday with a welcoming address from ESMO President Andrés Cervantes. (Annalee Armstrong/Fierce Biotech)

“Practice changing” was a phrase uttered a lot in the halls of ESMO, plastered on billboards, too. Lilly’s Jacob Van Naarden, president of Loxo@Lilly, said that ESMO bookends the year with the U.S.-based American Society of Clinical Oncology that runs in Chicago each June. The result displayed at these meetings set the tone for oncologists, impacting global practice, he said.

“The Congress as a whole continues to highlight very, very important cutting-edge science and I think that's sort of where we are also priding ourselves on, to really be able to look at novel ways of perturbing known or novel targets using our key modalities and key platforms,” said Novartis’ Jeff Legos, who serves as global head of oncology and hematology development.

The pharmaceutical companies pulled out all the stops for this year’s exhibitions, building elaborate booths that became platforms for networking, housing hundreds of people sipping espressos as they chatted with their peers.

“We've got probably the biggest presence we’ve ever had at ESMO this year,” said Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca’s chief of oncology R&D. She couldn’t recall a time when the ESMO Congress was this busy.

It’s a competitive conference, with many pharma executives preferring to keep the light shining on their own products and breakthroughs. Roche’s Charlie Fuchs, global head of oncology and hematology drug development, was laser focused on his own company’s presentation of data for the phase 3 ALINA study in non-small cell lung cancer. The company showcased a 76% reduction of tumor recurrence or death over chemotherapy when Alecensa was used after surgery in patients with stage 1b to 3a, ALK-positive disease during a presentation Saturday.

But, even Fuchs was able to say that any breakthrough is a good breakthrough.

“It's safe to say that as somebody who's been a cancer researcher for three decades, I'm always interested in seeing patients have more options and that's why we have all these organizations developing new drugs,” Fuchs said. “There's always exciting things percolating and we're each doing our part to make a difference in the lives of patients.”

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