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How precision medicine is transforming oncology care

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In an interview, Peter Raouf, Director, GCC Oncology Business, AstraZeneca, discusses the benefits and challenges that precision medicine presents today.

Precision medicine is an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that considers individual variability in genes, lifestyle, and environment. According to a recent report, the precision medicine market was valued at approximately US$58,450 million in 2020 and is expected to reach about US$98,550 million at a CAGR of 9.2 per cent by 2026. In an interview with Omnia Health Magazine, Peter Raouf, Director, GCC Oncology Business, AstraZeneca, discussed the benefits and challenges that precision medicine presents today. Excerpts:

What are your thoughts on precision medicine, and where does it stand today?

Precision medicine is the natural evolution of medicine. For instance, whenever one has an infection, it is important to ensure getting access to the right antibiotics so that the condition is appropriately treated, and immunity is not compromised. But here, we are not talking about a simple infection but cancer. Everyone is aware of the difficulties and side effects that patients could face while going through traditional treatments such as chemotherapy. While chemotherapy is an essential part of the treatment and will continue to be so, it will be complemented with more targeted therapies or precision medicine as we move forward – with the expectation that these will improve patient experiences and outcomes.

What are some of the potential benefits of precision medicine in oncology?

From a patient perspective, the benefits would be getting a treatment directed to the origin of the root cause. Instead of giving one treatment that could stop working after a while or require lots of other medications to manage side effects, this treatment method would ensure that the efficacy would be at its maximum and the side effects would be low. Precision medicine is not just important for the treating physician and caregivers but also for the whole healthcare ecosystem. Moreover, there are many long-term benefits for precision medicine. When you give the proper treatment, you ensure that the overall burden of treating the cancer patient is reduced.

What are some of the challenges when it comes to bringing precision medicine to the mainstream?

The biggest challenge would be building the knowledge and the speed of conveying this knowledge, along with the proof of concept, introduction to the customers, physicians, and authorities. This is where AstraZeneca comes in. Our role is to make sure that we convey the latest information and adequately educate the healthcare community about the tools required for precision medicine, as well as ensure patients are aware of the options available to improve their experience as they undergo treatment. Today, many of the new cancer treatments are coming with what are called ‘companion diagnostics’. So, for instance, if a patient tests positive, this means that they would benefit from this additional treatment. I wouldn’t term these as challenges but more about prerequisites for precision medicine. Therefore, proper education and knowledge must be made available as soon as the data is out there, and regulatory approvals are in place. It is also vital to support the infrastructure to accommodate tests that will help physicians or healthcare professionals identify the right patient profile for each of these new precision medicine treatments.

What are some of the initiatives introduced by AstraZeneca in this area?

At AstraZeneca, we are leading a revolution in oncology to redefine cancer care. Our ambition is to provide cures for cancer in every form. We are following the science to understand cancer and all its complexities to discover, develop and deliver life-changing treatments and increase the potential for cure.

To this end, and on a global level, AstraZeneca was one of the pioneers in targeted therapies. In fact, the first targeted therapy in lung cancer was discovered and introduced by AstraZeneca. In the last six years, we have introduced more than three targeted treatments, which we are very proud of. But we are not stopping here as we continue to accelerate the documentation process for the authorities to approve, impart education, and support the medical community. By doing this, we are helping to build an interconnected diagnostic landscape by linking regional hospitals and medical laboratories with international laboratories. We are also working on more long-term goals by building infrastructure. Today, several of our tests are part of the mainstream treatment of lung, ovarian and brain cancers.

What role is technology playing in advancing precision medicine?

Technology plays a key role as we continue to develop newer and more cost-effective techniques. For example, in our regional team here, we have people dedicated to diagnostics to ensure that they catch up with the progress and evolution of technology and introduce the latest testing tools to the region.

What are your thoughts on the future of precision medicine?

Precision medicine will continue to be a significant focus area for the whole medical community in the coming years. Its impact has been observed in the last five to six years, and research is available about how survival rates are improving for certain types of cancers. It’s all thanks to the increased utilisation of this medication. So, this will continue to be the route going forward for drug research, and guidelines need to be updated to include these kinds of treatments to evolve the diagnostic landscape further. Attention should also be paid to discovering more driver mutations because once you find out those for certain types of cancer, you will be able to identify the test for this mutation and the treatment. So, the starting point would be the identification of this driver mutation.

We also need to make sure that everyone is aware of these tests because, in some types of cancer, there are still some stigmas attached in terms of testing. A few years ago, we launched a campaign called ‘Believe in your identity’. The campaign focused on lung cancer, which is characterised by multiple mutations. It’s a tumour where you can find many driver mutations. Each patient is different, and that’s why the campaign focused on believing in identity because the patient, their family and the caregivers should ensure that the patients are being tested for whatever tests are available. This will help devise a treatment plan that is more optimised for that individual patient.

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Peter Raouf has been associated with AstraZeneca for almost 15 years, working in different capacities across the GCC. Since 2015, he has been responsible for the Oncology business unit in the Gulf region. From 2020, his role was expanded to the GCC, including Saudi Arabia.

This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today.

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