Expert: Europeans ‘effectively denied access’ to decisive cancer biomarkers

"Biomarkers are often undervalued when compared to treatments, but are an essential piece of success," Michael Zaiac, head of Novartis oncology for Europe, told EURACTIV. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

This article is part of our special report Driving progress in Europe’s cancer care.

Biomarker testing holds the potential to revolutionise early diagnosis and prevention of cancer. But the EU has not yet managed to fully capitalise on these advances, according to health experts.

“Europe is missing out on major opportunities,” Denis Horgan, executive director of the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) told EURACTIV, adding that widespread adoption of biomarkers would support continued improvements in cancer outcomes, as well as a wide range of other conditions. 

Each year, more than three million people are diagnosed with cancer in Europe.

Speaking during a recent meeting of the European Parliament’s ‘Beating Cancer Committee’, Ricciardi Walter, chair of the Horizon Europe mission board for cancer, pointed out that Europe is home to less than 10% of the world population but has a 25% share of the global cancer burden.

“If we don’t act promptly and effectively, the number of new cancer diagnoses is projected to increase by 25% in Europe by 2025. That is, of course, not acceptable,” he said, stressing the need for better early diagnosis and prevention of cancer. 

One way to achieve this is through the use of cancer biomarkers, biomolecules produced by the tumour cells or by the body in response to the tumour, which can then be detected in bodily tissues or fluids. 

A draft version of the EU pharmaceutical strategy, seen by EURACTIV ahead of its publication, highlights that it will “incentivise the development and validation of relevant biomarkers” which it says would “support the effectiveness in the intake of some new and expensive medicines, thus contributing to the sustainability of healthcare systems”.

Crucially, cancer biomarkers can be patient-specific, rather than tumour-specific, meaning treatment can be personally tailored.

“Biomarker tests that predict responses to therapeutic or preventive interventions support a personalised cancer-care plan, rather than one-size-fits-all, that can maximise health benefits while minimising debilitating toxicities,” Horgan said. 

Antonella Cardone, director of the European Cancer Patient Coalition (ECPC), added that biomarker testing helps to “identify the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of different types of cancer,” ensuring that the right person receives the right treatment at the right time.

There has been an increased drive for personalised approaches to medicine, reflected in EU initiatives such as the Beating Cancer Plan.

However, this has not yet been effectively translated to the use of biomarkers for cancer care.

One of the main challenges is that awareness about cancer biomarker testing remains low, Cardone said, highlighting that they are still “largely unknown to cancer patients”. 

“Some of the reasons for inadequate access to biomarker testing is the lack of awareness and education amongst patients and healthcare professionals”.

“Unfortunately, too many people diagnosed with cancer do not have access to the personalised treatment they need and deserve,” she said, adding that cancer patients should be informed about the available treatment options to make the best decisions for their health.

Europeans ‘effectively denied access’ to biomarker testing

There are also economic barriers to their uptake, such as pricing, reimbursement or limited availability, Cardone added. 

Horgan emphasised that an important cause of limited access to, and the use of, molecular diagnostics across Europe is a “lack of clear reimbursement pathways”.

“While diagnostics account for less than 2% of total healthcare spending, they influence 60% of clinical decision making,” he said. Despite this, the assessment of the value of these tests remains to be clarified in most healthcare systems. 

As such, he said, the current approach “does not reward value creation, nor does it incentivise evidence generation to support value demonstration”.

As a consequence, most European patients are “effectively denied access”, he said, stressing that this cannot be allowed to continue.

“Ultimately, successful development and deployment of biomarker testing depends on a policy framework in which countries would find it easier to reach consistent decisions and to provide clearer funding arrangements, thus boosting access and continued development,” Horgan added. 

Cancer committee chair: EU should not scrimp on healthcare

Each euro invested in cancer treatment is a step closer to patients’ health, so Europe should not cut corners and leave patients alone in their fight, centre-right MEP Bartosz Arłukowicz told EURACTIV in an interview.

Biomarkers ‘key’ to unlocking personalised medicine

Part of what is required to capitalise on the potential of biomarkers in the EU is a harmonised policy framework, Cardone stressed, adding this will increase the access to personalised medicine across Europe. 

She added she hoped that Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan will provide the necessary policy guidance to harmonise accessibility to biomarker testing across Europe.

“Biomarker testing is the key to unlocking effective and personalised treatments and it is time for change,” Cardone stressed.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic] 


This article was sponsored by AstraZeneca

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