Start Your Engines: The Business of Oncology

Well, it's mid-May at 36° North, the honeysuckles are blooming, my allergies are miserable, the air is damp, and that can only mean one thing: the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting is nearly upon us.

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Held this year beginning on 29 May, the annual ASCO meeting coincides with all sorts of announcements of miracle cancer drugs and the sound of cash changing hands. Although being held in Orlando, Florida, this is far from a Mickey Mouse operation; in fact, the buzz of bullion here rivals that of the Walt Disney empire. With the abstracts released last night at 6 pm EDT, look for the news to start coming hot and heavy.

This is also when I get phone calls from my friends in business asking for advice to make sense of the press reports of preliminary clinical trials findings. So actively watched is this scholarly assembly of the world's most prominent names in academic and industrial clinical oncology that Bloomberg is today calling this convergence of minds and data a "Cancer Drug Bazaar."

Biotech Sellers Dangle Data for Cash at Cancer Drug Bazaar
By Lisa Rapaport

May 15 (Bloomberg) -- Biotechnology companies struggling with funding shortages because of the global credit crisis will be scrambling for the attention of cash-rich drugmakers at the world's largest annual meeting of cancer doctors.

Already, biotechnology companies are being more selective about what compounds they invest in and which studies they'll undertake, said Bruce Chabner, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The American Society of Clinical Oncology, which starts May 29, may give at least 30 companies with no marketed drugs their last best chance to seek deals with larger drugmakers eager to expand in the $78 billion cancer market, according to industry executives, analysts and investors interviewed this month.

Hmmm. Dangle Data. Cash at Cancer. Awesome Alliteration.

The slew of news that comes out from this meeting is often sensational. Sometimes this is not just due to journalists being captivated but rather academic institutions overly promoting the work of their scientists and physicians (and physician-scientists) as detailed recently in a paper in Annals of Internal Medicine (Ann Intern Med 2009;150:613; "CONCLUSION: Press releases from academic medical centers often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations.").

So, to investors: beware.

To journalists, bloggers, and journalist bloggers: be responsible.

To those assembled: be critical.


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I have advice for people who would makes investments based upon these announcements: just go to the casino. It is easier. It is more fun. And the odds are better.

I've got a story about tradeshows, scientists, drinking and San Diego. If you have 10 minutes to spare, I'll regale you with it online. If not, it'll go into the book.