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Cancer summit presses toward treatments in shadow of COVID-19

Timothy Annett and Michelle Fay Cortez, Bloomberg News on

Published in Health & Fitness

The year's biggest meeting of cancer researchers was subjected to a coronavirus overhaul this year, but even in scaled-back form it forced investors to recalibrate their expectations for some closely watched medicines.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting is the field's most important gathering each spring, providing a stage for major pharmaceutical companies to unveil major findings and tout promising treatments. It's also an annual opportunity for all kinds of researchers, doctors, executives and investors to rub elbows.

With COVID-19 making travel uncomfortable and splashy conferences impossible this year, the summit was mostly a virtual affair. Still, it delivered many of the kinds of important victories and stinging setbacks it often does. And the meeting showed that even as the drug industry races to identify virus treatments and vaccines, cancer remains perhaps its most important business overall.

"When the coronavirus wanes and we have a vaccine, and this infectious disease is brought under control, we will still have cancer and the need for new treatments," said Richard Schilsky, ASCO's chief medical officer, in an interview. "We have millions of patients around the world who need new and improved treatments for cancer."

Among the most noteworthy winners was U.K. pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca Plc, which reported that its blockbuster Tagrisso reduced the risk of dying from lung cancer or relapse by four-fifths over three years. The drug is already AstraZeneca's biggest product, bringing in $982 million in sales in the first quarter alone.

Some smaller drug companies also logged what looked like significant victories: Trillium Therapeutics Inc. said that a second patient taking its experimental lymphoma therapy responded to the treatment. Shares of Trillium, which has a market value of about $560 million, surged more than 17% on Friday

 

And as ASCO played out, other big cancer-research news also roiled drugmaker stocks.

Pfizer Inc. shares fell 6% late Friday after the U.S. drug bellwether said a late-stage study of its treatment for metastatic breast cancer, Ibrance, was unlikely to show a statistically significant improvement in invasive disease-free survival for patients with early breast cancer.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has been the defining story of the health care business this year, the ASCO meeting was a reminder that most of the world's pharmaceutical companies remain keenly focused on finding new cancer treatments to generate profits. And that focus has paid off for patients: The U.S. death rate from cancer has been falling at a record pace, thanks largely to big advances in treating lung tumors.

Data presented at the meeting showed progress in combating the second leading cause of death worldwide, Schilsky said. Researchers found medicines used for patients with advanced disease can have an even bigger benefit for those with recently diagnosed tumors, while medicines are emerging that are effective against a wide range of tumors that are driven by specific gene mutations.

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