France: A World Leader in Oncology

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Due to high unmet medical need, oncology is set to remain as the number one therapeutic area globally in the coming years. France has traditionally been a leader in this field, with a number of companies, institutes and hospitals pioneering new forms of treatment and adapting policy to fit the needs of patients.

“Oncology specialists in France are considered state of the art oncologists worldwide”

Pierre Henry Longeray, Merck

Pierre Henry Longeray, President of Biopharma Activities for Merck France explains that “oncology specialists in France are considered state of the art oncologists worldwide and responsible for global research programs. As a nation, we are state of the art in terms of innovation – without a doubt.”

Longeray’s pride in the French oncological scene is duplicated by Alexander Eggermont, Director-General of the Gustave Roussy Institute, Europe’s premier oncology center. He asserts that Gustave Roussy is “the largest cancer institute in Europe by volume of activity; seeing up to 12,000 newly diagnosed patients a year,” and that in France, “we have a very advanced operational structure and culture, with a fully integrated clinical research and treatment process. This is very appealing to many researchers.” Jean-Christophe Barland, SVP and GM for France at BMS agrees; “One of the most attractive elements in France is the undeniable quality of the teams and the scientific research environment,” adding that “several of the top oncology institutions in the world are found in France

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French oncological innovations are not limited to research, but also appear in the country’s innovative cancer policies. David Khayat, now Head of the Department of Medical Oncology at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, designed the Plan National Cancer under the Jacques Chirac government in 2002. The Plan was unique in Europe at the time in that it aimed to bring together all sectors of the cancer field in a patient-centred, multidisciplinary approach and associate all aspects of cancer care, research and patient advocacy in one single umbrella body. Having lost its global leadership role in oncology in the 1980s, the Plan, according to Khayat, “completely changed the cancer landscape in France, allowing us to return to a position of global leadership. The treatment of cancer in France is what it is now thanks to the actions taken between 2002 and 2007.”By decreasing the number of research units from 1,500 to seven centralised poles, Khayat was able to condense expertise into specific hubs and describes how “60 percent of hospitals were no longer allowed to treat a cancer patient. France was the first country in the world to set up a threshold for a hospital to treat each type of cancer.”

France’s newest Plan National Cancer (2014-19) is also innovative in that it contributes to a much needed reduction in healthcare costs according to Gustave Roussy’s Eggermont. He explains that “part of the plan is to have a regional parcours, or network of hospitals, as part of a push towards consolidation. Gustave Roussy has already taken the initiative to form partnerships with other healthcare and medical institutions, in order to build and improve the regional network. We hope to serve as a model that will both encourage and facilitate other hospitals’ adaptation to the consolidation of the system.”

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Despite France’s leading position in oncology research and treatment, the country has the sixth highest cancer rate globally with 300.4 incidences per every 100,000 people and is also home to the highest rate of male cancer-related death in the EU. Some have linked these statistics to the French predilection for tobacco and alcohol, and Khayat admits that “we are less strong in prevention, with more cases of cancer in France than in the United Kingdom.” However, he goes on to say that “amongst the 40 countries of the OECD, we have the longest survival rates for cancer patients from first diagnoses … [and] once diagnosed with cancer, we are the number one place to be treated in Europe.”

In tandem with the aforementioned public sector initiatives in oncology, French pharmaceutical companies such as Pierre Fabre are prioritising oncology in their work. Frédéric Duchesne, President and CEO of Pierre Fabre’s pharmaceuticals division, highlights oncology’s importance to the company, explaining that “in terms of R&D, acquisitions and future innovation investments, oncology is our primary focus.” Pierre Fabre’s continued involvement in the 220 hectare Oncopole research center in Toulouse attests to this commitment to oncology, as does the recently launched ‘Pierre Fabre Fund for Innovation,’ which targets “biotech companies, startups and research laboratories specialized in oncology, onco-dermatology or dermatology, in order to speed up the development process of new products.”

France is also at the forefront of new forms of oncology. BMS were the first company to launch an immuno-oncology drug in France with Yervoy, and GM Christophe Barland admits that at the time, “our chosen field, immuno-oncology, was very radical, as immuno-oncology was a very fringe field back then and we were seen as eccentrics.” However, other companies such as Merck are now also getting involved in this field in France. Merck have worked in partnership with Pfizer “to co-develop an anti-PD-L1 product and accelerate the speed of its development. Currently the drug is at Phase II / III of clinical trials” says President of Biopharma activities, Pierre Henry Longeray. Longeray sees this kind of partnership as “not something new and I don’t see any reason why it would go in another direction,” paving the way for continued oncological collaboration, innovation and cures in France.

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