Oct 27, 2022
By Aaron Tallent
ASCO relies on engaging its diverse community of oncology professional members to pursue its mission, “Conquering cancer through research, education, and promotion of the highest quality, equitable patient care.” In line with this time-tested approach, when the Society committed 5 years ago to making this mission explicitly global, its Board of Directors knew that involving members from different regions across the world would be crucial.
This led to the creation of the ASCO Regional Councils, which are ASCO committees that consist of members representing countries in particular regions of the world to help ASCO understand and respond to their region’s unique challenges in patient care. For the past 3 years, the Society has been convening regional councils in Asia Pacific, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa.
“The fact that we have the opportunity from ASCO to be part of these initiatives is very beneficial and we are grateful for their support,” said Luis Corrales, MD, of Centro de Investigación y Manejo del Cáncer in San Jose, Costa Rica, and a member of the Latin America Regional Council.
Developing the Regional Councils
For years, the ASCO International Affairs Committee has drawn on the expertise and insights of members in different countries to guide ASCO’s international activities. Building on this experience, the councils bring this approach to a regional level, recognizing that issues and how they may be addressed vary from continent to continent and from country to country. Council members help delineate the nuances of the particular needs and challenges for members in their respective regions and work with ASCO to adapt programs and services to address them.
“These challenges and their solutions may vary in different parts of the world, and therefore a regional approach is needed. A council can facilitate collaboration within a region to identify, prioritize, and address challenges that they are facing,” said Doug Pyle, vice president of International Affairs for ASCO.
In addition, the regional councils provide a forum for members to network, collaborate, and work on regional solutions. This can also help identify opportunities and best practices that could be applied to other regions.
Asia Pacific Regional Council: Fostering the Next Generation of Oncology Leaders
ASCO has launched three regional councils, starting with the Asia Pacific Regional Council in 2019. From its first meeting, one of the key challenges identified by the council was the need to support young oncologists across the region and develop the next generation of oncology leaders. In response, the regional council worked with staff from ASCO’s Education, Science, and Professional Development and International Affairs Departments to adapt ASCO’s Leadership Development Program (LDP) to Asia Pacific. The LDP is a year-long program that provides early-career oncologists with opportunities to learn valuable leadership skills, receive mentorship from ASCO leaders, and experience the Society’s role and mission firsthand. The 2020-2021 Asia Pacific LDP class included 12 members who initiated several projects, including examining barriers and opportunities to collaborative clinical research, models for sustainable cancer registries, and strategies to garner political will for cancer control efforts at the country level.
Another priority issue identified by the council was the variability across the region of access to high-quality cancer care. One response by the council to this large and complex problem has been to expand ASCO’s International Cancer Corps (ICC) program in the region. The ICC engages ASCO member volunteers to improve the quality of cancer care education and training at medical institutions in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In 2020, the council issued a region-wide Request for Proposals to hospitals across Asia inviting them to apply to the program; from 16 applications, the council selected Sarawak General Hospital in Malaysia. Sarawak has since completed two ASCO training programs in palliative care, with additional capacity-building initiatives planned. These initiatives have garnered attention and impact across Malaysia.
“Individuals in each country should gather more frequently in the Asia-Pacific region. The regional council gives them the opportunity to connect face-to-face,” said Eishi Baba, MD, PhD, of Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, and a member of the Asia Pacific Regional Council.
The council also assisted with the development of the ASCO Breakthrough meeting, which brings together oncology thought leaders, medical technology pioneers, novel drug developers, practicing clinicians, and research trailblazers to discuss challenges, opportunities for collaboration, and potential solutions. The first meeting was held in 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand. COVID-19 delayed the convening of the second Breakthrough meeting, but it is scheduled to take place on August 3-5, 2023, in Yokohama, Japan. Dr. Baba and the council are playing a key role in the development of the 2023 meeting’s program.
“ASCO Breakthrough is very valuable for myself and my colleagues, especially the young investigators in Japan. We are now trying to increase the number of investigators from Asian countries who attend because we think it will be very fruitful for their education,” said Dr. Baba.
ASCO’s scientific journals present additional opportunities for education. The council is working on a special series on cancer care in the Asia Pacific region for a 2023 issue of JCO Global Oncology. Topics will include palliative care, women’s leadership in oncology, cost of care, and personalized medicine in LMICs.
Latin America Regional Council: Expanding Research
In 2021, ASCO launched the Latin America Regional Council. A clear priority that resonated after a regional survey was the need to enhance clinical cancer research in Latin America by more effectively supporting academic investigators.
“I think through ASCO we can look into ways of promoting patient access to therapies, and an important part of that is through access to clinical trials here in our countries. This will benefit patients a great deal,” said Dr. Corrales.
To address this challenge, the council has developed an integrated strategy combining research skills training with mentorship. The council is adapting ASCO’s well-established International Clinical Research Course by adding local and international mentors who can help the investigators develop and implement their research ideas. A recent council initiative is a grant funded by Pfizer, which is designed to support local data and improve the quality of care in breast cancer in Latin America.
The Latin America Regional Council is looking to engage the neighboring islands of the Caribbean and find opportunities for collaboration. Through surveys being sent to different medical societies and physicians from Caribbean countries, an assessment of their challenges will be performed and the council will explore their interest in joining.
“The idea is to provide a questionnaire to understand their experiences and openness to participation. From there, we can see if it is something that they can relate to our Latin America Regional Council or if they are facing a different reality that needs to be addressed in another way,” said Dr. Corrales.
Sub-Saharan Regional Council: Reducing Disparities in Cancer Care
ASCO convened the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Council in 2022, which consists of members in West, East, and Southern Africa. The council held its first meeting in August to discuss challenges in the region.
While determining priorities is still underway, there was a consensus on the importance of improving clinical cancer research opportunities and addressing patient hesitation to participate in clinical trials. The council also agreed that there is a need to determine ways to remove the multiple barriers to access to cancer treatment.
The Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Council met virtually in December to begin discussing how to address these areas.
All three councils have an opportunity to share their ideas and experiences with each other.
“Chairs of the councils meet and discuss what they are working on, and council members have opportunities to interact. ASCO would not have this kind of rich understanding of regional and global differences and similarities if these councils did not exist,” said Mr. Pyle.