Prof. Eric Van Cutsem has been selected for the 2019 ESMO Award, which will be presented to him at this year’s ESMO Congress taking place in Barcelona, 27 September - 1 October. (1) The architect and current head of one of the earliest specialist oncology units for gastrointestinal cancers in Europe, Van Cutsem has for over 20 years been at the forefront of developing new targeted therapies for these tumour types and integrating research with multidisciplinary patient care. In an interview, he explained why he considers himself a clinician first and foremost, how he measures success, and why he is optimistic about the future of his field.
You are the Head of the Digestive Oncology division at the University Hospitals Gasthuisberg in Leuven and at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Can you explain what you do at work?
My entire career, I have been and remain a clinician. All of my efforts have always been aimed at improving care for patients. Here in Leuven, I have been able to structure these efforts: I created what has now become one of the largest digestive oncology departments in western Europe, where patient care – and especially the quality of patient care – are central. We work as GI oncologists in a multidisciplinary setting, with the collaboration of surgeons, radiologists, pathologists, nuclear medicine physicians and radiation oncologists, specialising exclusively in the treatment of patients with GI cancers. Within this field, we cover all aspects of patient care, from preventive screening to palliative care and the end of life. As science and knowledge have evolved, we have also introduced many research initiatives in our clinical activity and set up collaborations with fundamental labs. Today, we are committed to integrating basic, translational and clinical research with care at the bedside of the patient.
What has been your biggest scientific achievement?
I helped to pioneer targeted therapy through studies in colorectal, gastric and pancreatic cancer, which ultimately led to the development and approval of new agents including anti-EGFR treatments in colorectal cancer and anti-HER-2 therapy in gastric cancer. I have also been able to contribute to a deeper knowledge and clinical understanding of EGFR mutations, as well as to the biomarker-based selection of patients for treatment with various new drugs. Additionally, I have invested a lot of effort in better understanding the role and improving the use of various diagnostic imaging tools in GI cancers, including endoscopy, radiology and nuclear scans. What I am proudest of, more generally, is the way in which we have been able to integrate clinical work with translational research into different aspects of GI tumours here in Leuven.
What is your favourite aspect of your work?
Above all else, it’s seeing patients make progress through treatment. Another aspect of my work is educating younger physicians on the various dimensions of patient care, clinical and translational research: mentoring them is also something I enjoy very much.
What role has ESMO played in your career?
Overall, the interaction with peers about educational, scientific and political aspects of cancer care via ESMO has been very important in my life. I have also been involved in many ESMO projects over the course of my career, including a number of educational initiatives like developing clinical practice guidelines and sitting on the scientific committees of various ESMO meetings. In 1999, I founded a small educational meeting on colorectal cancer that eventually became the ESMO World Congress on Gastrointestinal Cancer, the biggest specialised event in this field globally, taking place every year in Barcelona.
Why is education so important to you?
Education is important because knowledge needs to be shared: interacting with peers on this level can really get you thinking in new ways and give you fresh ideas, different angles from which to tackle a problem. You can give a lot through education, but you also get a lot back. This is equally true when it comes to patients and their families.
How do you feel about winning the ESMO Award, and how do you define success in your field?
I feel very honoured. The award is an important stimulus to persevere in our efforts to understand these cancers more profoundly. It tells me that we’re on the right track with our approach of putting the patient at the centre of what we do. The most rewarding measure of our success is seeing that we can improve outcomes for patients, too many of whom still die of this disease. I also feel we are succeeding when we manage to prevent cancers through our colorectal cancer screening programme – which, as chair, I spent seven years extending into a national screening campaign in collaboration with three consecutive health ministers in Flanders.
What do you think the future will hold in GI oncology?
I’m optimistic – I think it’s important to believe in the future. If you look at the number of big projects currently ongoing in fundamental and translational research, there are many biomarkers and molecular targets that I hope we will be able to make actionable to generate innovative treatment options. The molecular arraying and immuno-oncological profiling of different GI tumours, to be integrated with new drugs, is the way forward in our field. If you look back 15 years, we have made enormous progress in colorectal cancer. In pancreatic cancer, progress has not been as spectacular, but our knowledge and understanding of the molecular alterations typically found in this disease are now rapidly evolving, which I’m convinced will allow us to find new treatments in the next five to 10 years.
Who has been your source of inspiration?
My wife and our three daughters have helped and taught me a lot in life. My father, who was also a researcher, and people around him like Paul Janssen, deeply inspired me when I was a young student. They were the ones who first showed and transmitted to me the spirit of innovation. In Leuven I created my unit from scratch, so I didn’t have one specific mentor: I asked many people in other specialties for advice and ideas, among whom the former dean of medicine, Jozef Janssens, always acted as a great sounding board. I have also been consistently inspired by the innovative power that characterises the University of Leuven generally – it’s why I’ve spent my entire career here.
Do you have a message for your collaborators?
Believe in the future – believe that progress is possible. Do rigorous science to try to understand the tumours and think outside of the box. For those taking care of patients: remember that patient care in oncology implies an understanding and empathy for people, to help them believe that the seemingly impossible can sometimes become possible. I also want to tell the young physicians I mentor that difficulties can be overcome when you are pragmatic, keep your feet on the ground, invest in the power of education and scientific knowledge, and continue to work hard.
1 Prof. Eric Van Cutsem will receive the ESMO Award and will present a Keynote Lecture entitled: “Innovative thinking and research for the benefit of patients with digestive cancers” during the ESMO 2019 Opening Ceremony, Friday 27 September, 11:45-13:30 CEST, Barcelona Auditorium.