Rising to the Challenges of 2021: Improving Cancer Patient Outcomes
By Brian Stuglik, CEO, Verastem Oncology
Cancer patients with a new or recurrent diagnosis confront challenges that are profoundly difficult to navigate. In 2020, patients and their HCPs had the compounded stress of considering whether and how to progress treatment based on associated risk of contracting COVID-19.
The full, long-term impact of the pandemic on cancer patient outcomes – from preventing or delaying diagnosis of early or recurrent cancer, all the way through treatment delays or deferrals – is yet to be clearly quantified.
Yet throughout 2020, healthcare professionals remained unwaveringly resilient and resourceful in addressing these challenges head-on. As we move forward in 2021, patients will require the biopharma industry to drive outcomes-based leadership that progresses R&D in novel ways that will benefit patients.
Terri’s journey with lung cancer began with what she perceived as allergy and asthma-like symptoms. She developed pneumonia, which led to identification of a tumor and diagnosis of Stage 3 Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC). Since then, she has had three recurrences.
Terri didn’t find out until she was three years into her journey that she had a KRAS mutation—and what that meant for her prognosis and options. “I went looking for my community,” Terri told me. “As cancer patients, we’re always looking for commonalities. I wanted to connect with other people who had a cancer caused by a KRAS mutation, but I found there wasn’t a specific way to do that—or a group dedicated to KRAS. So I founded KRAS Kickers to bring together the folks that KRAS affected—the patients and those who love us.”
Terri’s story is a touchstone for all of us at Verastem Oncology. Over the past year, we transformed our company to accelerate our global clinical trial program aimed at progressing our most promising therapies targeting different levers in RAS mutant tumors. We’re still early-on in our work, but we are energized by the thought that if we get it right, patients across multiple cancers could benefit.
RAS has long been one of the most infamous cancer-causing proteins. RAS mutant tumors are present in about 30% of all human cancers, and RAS has also been one of the most elusive cancer targets for treatment. Since its discovery almost four decades ago, researchers have persistently tried, and failed, to develop therapies that effectively block the cancer-promoting effects of KRAS mutation.
Now, after decades of trial and error, and thousands of compound failures, the private and public sector research community is making real progress in understanding how to target and treat RAS mutant tumors. We now clearly understand the importance of not treating all RAS mutant tumors the same, and that it is critical to identify how subtypes of KRAS mutant cancers respond differently to treatments. Drugs targeting different mutations in the KRAS gene are currently being investigated; if successful, they could make a meaningful difference for patients.
“We now clearly understand the importance of not treating all RAS mutant tumors the same, and that it is critical to identify how subtypes of KRAS mutant cancers respond differently to treatments. Drugs targeting different mutations in the KRAS gene are currently being investigated; if successful, they could make a meaningful difference for patients.”
Only weeks ago, Verastem started enrolling patients with low-grade serous ovarian cancer (LGSOC) and recurrent non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that is KRAS positive, in our RAMP (Raf And Mek Program) clinical trials. RAMP201 & RAMP202 are uniquely investigating a combo of RAF-MEK inhibition, in combination with FAK inhibition.
I’m deeply grateful to the RAMP investigators and their trial site colleagues. Every day, each of them personally goes to tremendous lengths to serve patients with cancer, even while managing the ongoing demands of another COVID-19 surge in their own communities. They have been steadfast, undoubtedly, because they most directly feel the impact that today’s trials can have on tomorrow’s clinical advances for patients.
To propel this momentum, the research community as a whole—including professionals and patients—must come together to support each other and the research under way. Patients must be encouraged to ask questions about their biomarkers and to participate in clinical trials, if they’re eligible. Terri tells me that many patients she meets do not know the facts about clinical trials, and incorrectly assume they are putting themselves at risk of receiving placebo—they are not aware that trials compare the current standard of care to a new therapy.
In 2020, we faced unimaginable obstacles, but our collective commitment to solving some of the most persistent, high unmet needs of cancer patients never faltered.
With tremendous admiration and gratitude to the patients, investigators and colleagues working to make a difference, I look forward with great hope to 2021—and wish everyone the greatest health and success.