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Incoming ASCO President Sets His Sights on Conquering Cancer

A Conversation With Howard A. Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO


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For more than 3 decades, Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO, has dedicated his medical career to researching the development of chemotherapies for breast cancer, including ado-trastuzumab emtansine, everolimus, and gemcitabine. In addition, he is credited with changing the standard of care for several types of cancer, which has led to improved survival outcomes in patients.


For us to be successful in conquering cancer, we will need to be united against the disease and bridge the differences of the various stakeholders with a set of common goals and ideas.
— Howard A. Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO

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After receiving his undergraduate degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1981, Dr. Burris attended the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, graduated in 1985, and went on to complete his internal medicine residency and oncology fellowship at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. In 1997, Dr. Burris established the first -community-based early-phase drug development program in Nashville, which later became the Sarah Cannon Research Institute. He is currently Chief Medical Officer, President of Clinical Operations, and Executive Director of Drug Development at Sarah Cannon, the Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare.

For most of his medical career, Dr. Burris has also been a committed ASCO member and volunteer. He has served as a member of the Board of Directors for both ASCO and the Conquer Cancer Foundation, as well as Chair of ASCO’s Nominating Committee and a member of numerous other committees, including Cancer Research, Cancer Education, Scientific Program, Audit, Ethics, and Sponsorship. He was named a Fellow of ASCO in 2010, and in 2017, he was elected to serve as ASCO President. Dr. Burris began his 4-year term in June 2018 as President-Elect, and he will begin his tenure as ASCO’s 56th President during the 2019 ASCO Annual Meeting, being held May 31 to June 4 in Chicago, followed by his third year (as Chair of the Board) and fourth year (as Past President).

Uniting to Conquer Cancer

A consensus builder during his many years in medicine, Dr. Burris said that it will take a resolute commitment from everyone involved in oncology to advance progress against cancer and turn the theme of his presidential tenure, “Unite and Conquer: Accelerating Progress Together,” into actuality.

“The mentality of ‘divide and conquer’ commonly used in business practices does not work in the cancer community. For us to be successful in conquering cancer, we will need to be united against the disease and bridge the differences of the various stakeholders with a set of common goals and ideas,” said Dr. Burris.

The ASCO Post talked with Dr. Burris about the challenges he faces as ASCO President and both his short- and long-term goals to make conquering cancer a reality for more patients with cancer.

Making Progress Through Consensus

How has your long history as an ASCO member and dedicated volunteer helped to shape the issues you plan to address as President of ASCO?

I’ve learned a number of lessons from my time as a board member and as a member of ASCO’s various committees. One is that our membership is broad and diverse, and while there are similarities in terms of members’ passion for treating and trying to cure cancer, there is also a great deal of heterogeneity among members across the United States and around the world. As a result, there are many different viewpoints members bring to the treatment of cancer. Each perspective has equally compelling arguments for how best to proceed with finding solutions that will, hopefully, result in the faster development of more effective therapies for more people with cancer.

My long history as an ASCO volunteer has taught me how to build a consensus among a wide diversity of ideas and help people compromise to develop reasonable solutions for the myriad of problems we are trying to solve. My volunteer activities have also given me a deep appreciation for the expertise of the ASCO leadership staff, and I’ve come to rely on their judgment and experience.

I think my past roles as an ASCO volunteer have given me the skills to facilitate collaboration among disparate groups. In addition, having a long, personal history with the ASCO staff will help me be more successful in my role as President.

Facing Challenges

What do you anticipate will be your greatest challenges during your Presidential tenure?

On a broad level, I’m anticipating that we will continue to see highly charged policy issues around access to and affordability of care, and we will have to continue to weigh in and advocate for our members, our patients, and the whole cancer community. Despite resistance on a national level to perceive the seriousness of various diseases differently, cancer stands out as a priority to conquer.

Although there is always resistance on a national level to perceive the seriousness of various diseases, cancer stands out as a priority to conquer.
— Howard A. Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO

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In 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on cancer,” which has continued to be supported by subsequent administrations. No other life-threatening disease has had that kind of intense national effort, although we will continue to be challenged to push for greater federal funding for cancer research, greater access to clinical trials, and more affordable treatments. Nevertheless, the consequences of a cancer diagnosis, coupled with an increasing number of treatment options and cancer survivors, will result in cancer remaining front and center of health-care priorities for some time.

Achieving Goals

What are you hoping to accomplish during your tenure?

In the short term—and this is in line with what has been my passion during my medical career—I will focus on the area of clinical research. ASCO has done a lot of work to facilitate greater access to clinical trials and to simplify patient enrollment. The launch in 2017 of ASCO’s Center for Research & Analytics -(CENTRA), which aims to make more cancer data available to the oncology community, will help to advance the practice of oncology and improve care for patients. This is where we can have some short-term wins and push those initiatives into the research ecosystem. It will be a key piece of what I’m hoping to accomplish during my -presidential term.

I’m also hoping to build on the work to expand ASCO membership. It is important for oncology providers to see ASCO as a voice for our community, offering an exchange of evidence-based information and ideas that are of concern to all our members, both domestic and international—not just at the Annual Meeting, but also during the many thematic educational meetings throughout the year.

I would also like to continue the work started in 2017 by Past President Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FACP, FASCO, with the formation of the ASCO Volunteer Corps. This initiative gives members opportunities to volunteer in various capacities to advance ASCO’s mission to conquer cancer and promote the highest quality patient care.

We have evolved as a global organization, and part of our 5-year strategic plan calls for an increase in ASCO’s global engagement.
— Howard A. Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO

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In the longer term, I want to build on bringing together the various stakeholders in the cancer community, including researchers, clinicians, patients, caregivers, advocates, payers, pharmaceutical executives, and federal regulators, to advance progress against cancer and strengthen the work of Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation. I’m passionate about the important research that Conquer Cancer funds, and it is why I chose “Unite and Conquer” as my Presidential theme. I want to make sure that Conquer Cancer continues to be a high priority for our members and that we support its work appropriately.

Another long-term goal of mine is to support the development of ASCO’s big-data platform CancerLinQ®. The CancerLinQ database now has more than 100 practices enrolled and data from the medical records of nearly 900,000 patients with cancer (and growing), which will help us provide greater personalized care for patients. Advances in the genomic profiling of tumors have led to tailored treatments for many patients and improved outcomes for some patients, and I plan to push those initiatives in personalized oncology through CancerLinQ.

Finding Solutions

Despite the enormous progress being made in oncology care, many challenges persist, including the skyrocketing costs of cancer therapies, a projected oncology workforce shortage at a time of increased demand for services, and a lack of access to high-quality cancer care. What initiatives do you hope to launch or expand during your Presidential tenure that will contribute to the development of solutions and policies to improve care for all patients with cancer?

These are all daunting challenges. I have been working on the oncology care issue and how we will be able to care for the growing number of cancer survivors—which is projected to increase from nearly 17 million today to 26 million by 20401—for a long time. It is incredibly exciting to see so many patients living longer and living well after a cancer diagnosis, but we also know from a 2014 study by ASCO that while the overall demand for oncology services is expected to rise by 40%, physician supply is predicted to increase by only 25%, generating a shortage of over 2,000 oncologists.2

I’m hoping that the legacy from my presidential year will be that I was successful at bridging gaps in our oncology care delivery system and connecting people to find better solutions to curing cancer.
— Howard A. Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO

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In response to this workforce shortfall challenge, ASCO has developed a strategic plan that broadens its membership to include not just fully trained oncology professionals, but a category for medical students and residents as well. Furthermore, the ASCO Trainee Council, under the purview of the ASCO Professional Development Committee, is dedicated to identifying and supporting the early career development needs of medical students, residents, and fellows. We also advocate for the increased use of advanced nurse practitioners and physician assistants in our offices and clinics, more research in care delivery efficiency, and increased support for fellowship program directors.

In addition, ASCO has been active in ensuring access to high-quality and high-value cancer care through its work on the Patient-Centered Oncology Payment model and the Quality Oncology Practice Initiative, as well as ASCO’s Value Framework, which assesses the value of new cancer therapies based on clinical benefit, side effects, and improvements in quality of life in the context of cost. I plan to support all of these efforts to ensure that we continue to make advances in more effective treatment for patients and that patients have access to timely, affordable, and high-quality care.

Expanding ASCO’s International Programs

Approximately one-third of ASCO members practice outside of the United States, and of these members, one-quarter practice in low- and middle-income countries. Do you have plans to expand ASCO’s global cancer programs, especially in resource-limited countries?

It is exciting to have so many international members, and we are actively pursuing the addition of more of these members to our various committees and task forces to improve our service to the global cancer community. We have evolved as a global organization, and part of our 5-year strategic plan calls for an increase in ASCO’s global engagement. We are also committed to addressing the rising cancer mortality rates around the world—especially in low- and middle-income countries—through our international programs, which focus on three main areas:

  • Development of future oncology leaders
  • Quality improvement in cancer prevention and care delivery through knowledge sharing and implementation
  • Innovation in the support and advancement of cancer research, particularly relevant to low- and middle-income practice settings.

What is also very exciting this year is ASCO’s inaugural meeting called Breakthrough: A Global Summit for Oncology Innovators, which will take place October 11 to 13, 2019, in Bangkok, Thailand. The new annual event will bring together leaders in medicine and technology to inspire research ideas, offer access to advances in technologies applicable to the solution of real-world problems, and promote peer-to-peer collaboration, with the ultimate goal of improving care for patients all over the world. I look forward to being there, and I hope my colleagues will join me at this exciting event.

Leaving a Long-Lasting Legacy

What enduring legacy would you like to leave the Society?

I’m hoping the legacy from my presidential year will be that I was successful at bridging gaps in our oncology care delivery system and connecting people to find better solutions to curing cancer. I think people will talk about my presidential term as one where the different stakeholders in cancer care came to the table to solve the issues preventing progress and to break down silos.I’m hoping this will become a pattern for how we handle some of the challenges facing the oncology community in the future. 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Burris is a consultant/advisor for Mersana, AstraZeneca, Forma Therapeutics, Janssen, Novartis, Roche/Genentech, MedImmune, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene, Incyte, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eisai, and Tolero Pharmaceuticals, with honoraria going to his institution; has received institutional research funding from Roche/Genentech, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Incyte, AstraZeneca, MedImmune, Macrogenics, Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim, Lilly, Seattle Genetics, Merck, Celgene, Agios, Jounce Therapeutics, Moderna Therapeutics, CytomX Therapeutics, GlaxoSmithKline, Verastem, Tesaro, Immunocore, Takeda, Millennium, BioMed Valley Discoveries, TG Therapeutics, Loxo, Vertex, Effector Therapeutics, Janssen, Gilead Sciences, BioAtla, CicloMed, Harpoon Therapeutics, Jiangsu Hengrui Medicine, Arch, Kyocera, Arvinas, and Revolution Medicines; and has given expert testimony for Novartis.

REFERENCES

1. National Cancer Institute Office of Cancer Survivorship: Statistics. Available at https://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/ocs/statistics/statistics.html. Accessed March 18, 2019.

2. Yang W, Williams JH, Hogan PF, et al: Projected supply of and demand for oncologists and radiation oncologists through 2025: An aging, better-insured population will result in shortage. J Oncol Pract 10:39-45, 2014.


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