ESMO's not what it used to be—and that's a good thing, executives say

Frauenkirche in the Bavarian city of Munich
This year's ESMO congress took place in Munich. (Photo by Meinzahn/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

MUNICH—As the European Society for Medical Oncology meeting comes to a close, one thing is clear: ESMO isn’t the meeting it used to be.

And the way biopharma executives see it, that’s a good thing.

According to Alan Sandler, M.D., Roche’s global head of lung and head and neck cancer, some 28,000 people attended this year’s European congress. “That’s closing in on ASCO numbers,” he pointed out.

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The American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, held each year in early June, has been the dominant cancer meeting for years, followed in importance by the American Society of Hematology's meeting, which is specific to blood cancers, biopharma executives said in interviews over ESMO weekend.

“ESMO was sort of second—if you missed the deadline on getting it into ASCO, you’d put it in there,” Sandler said, adding, "Who would have thought of having multiple presidential symposiums? It used to be lucky for us to fill one with important information.”

These days, though? “For us, this has become one of the major milestones on our corporate calendar,” Tesaro Chief Medical Officer Marty Huber, M.D., said.

Over the past few years, ESMO has been the stage for some of cancer’s biggest breakthroughs, including this weekend’s performance from AstraZeneca and Merck’s Lynparza in ovarian cancer maintenance; last year’s showing for AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi in stage 3 lung cancer; and 2016’s unveiling of results from key lung cancer studies for Merck & Co.’s Keytruda.

“I think that 10 years ago, it would have been unheard of to send data of that importance to anywhere other than ASCO or ASH,” Dave Fredrickson, EVP and global head of AZ’s oncology business unit, said of the recent Lynparza results.

So what’s contributed to ESMO’s rise? For one, the sheer volume of cancer data coming out these days—and immuno-oncology data in particular.

“The very, very competitive nature of the immunotherapy world is such that you’re seeing data generated at a rate that we generally haven’t seen before in oncology,” Roy Baynes, Merck SVP and head of global clinical development, said.

“So many things are coming out, you can’t be dependent on one congress,” Sandler agreed.

As a result, ESMO isn’t the only cancer meeting gaining in importance. Just look at this year’s American Association for Cancer Research summit, which featured pivotal lung cancer survival results from both Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

“I think it’s become much more of, what’s the next meaningful meeting, rather than holding everything in reserve for one big meeting,” Baynes said.

Sandler and Fredrickson, though, were also quick to commend ESMO leadership for the role they’ve played in building up the meeting.

“Our European colleagues and others are acting upon this and working to grow ESMO and … making it the congress they wish it to be,” Sandler said. “It’s really exciting to see that.”

“It’s something that ESMO’s been working on for quite some time, and it was just for me an opportunity to take pause and reflect on, ‘Wow, it’s really become, you know, the second major global oncology conference,' ” Fredrickson added.

However it happened, executives agree on one thing: ESMO’s ascendance is good for patients.

“It means that we’ve got another venue that has the scale, the reach, the scientific rigor of an ASCO,” Fredrickson said, adding, “It allows us to be able to really get information out on a global scale quickly.”

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