AstraZeneca’s Dr. Omar Perez On The 5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer

An Interview with Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

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Don’t skip out on preventative screenings. Too many people think that if they feel healthy, they don’t need to go for a regular wellness visit or be screened for cancer. But getting screened according to recommended guidelines regardless of whether you feel good or not may save your life. The earlier your healthcare provider detects your cancer, the sooner they find the best treatment for you, and the better chance you have of survival.

Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?

In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer,” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Omar Perez, PhD, RAC, Head of Medical Diagnostics, US Medical Affairs, Oncology at AstraZeneca.

Dr. Omar Perez has nearly 20 years of experience in designing, deploying and leading high-visibility oncology initiatives supporting global companion diagnostic developments, strategic partnerships and commercialization opportunities. Before joining AstraZeneca, he oversaw the global companion diagnostic (CDx) developments for GlaxoSmithKline’s oncology portfolio and led global CDx activities supporting numerous drug approvals for Pfizer. Notably, he led the first FDA-approved next-generation sequencing product for multiple targeted agents and helped establish the Center for Precision Medicine in Latin America to support Pfizer oncology products. Dr. Perez’s background includes roles in biotech and diagnostic companies, including co-founding Nodality, a diagnostic company focused on hematological malignancies. He is an inventor of the multiparametric phospho-proteomic flow technologies and an author of 37 publications and 35 patents.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, and have been interested in science and math since I was young. I am the oldest of three, with two younger sisters. Both of my parents migrated from Mexico to the US and were in the medical field — my father was a primary care doctor, and my mother ran the business operations of the family medical practice — which exposed me not only to medicine early on but also the patient experience, as I worked in the clinic during my summer months as a teenager.

Cancer is also personal to me, as I was diagnosed with kidney cancer when I was just seven years old. There was no early diagnosis or screening; it was almost serendipitous that a visible mass was observed. Specialized treatments at UCLA Children’s Hospital, rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and years-worth of rehabilitation later, I survived and I am now cancer free. To this day, I still participate in long-term study follow-ups. So, in addition to seeing what the medical field was like through both the eyes of my parents and my own experience at the medical clinic growing up, I also learned what it was like to be a patient and cancer survivor myself at a young age.

Together, these experiences are what inspired me to pursue a dual Bachelor of Arts in Biochemistry and Philosophy, and a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at the University of California, Berkley, followed by a PhD in Molecular Pharmacology at Stanford University. I then rounded out my education with an executive management degree at MIT Sloan School of Management.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I’d say that growing up with two parents in the medical field and facing a childhood cancer diagnosis were the two things that drove me to a career in the sciences — and more specifically, medicine development. When I was young, there was a one-size-fits-all approach to treating most types of cancer, which unsurprisingly only benefitted some patients. Now, with precision medicine, we have the power to get patients life-saving medicines targeted to their specific cancer that can help improve their chances of survival. As someone who was fortunate enough to beat cancer, I want to do everything I can to ensure that everyone has access to the best treatment options available so that they can beat cancer too.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

The promise of precision medicine is what inspires me to get out of bed each morning. Biomarker testing is an incredible tool that helps healthcare providers customize treatment plans and get patients the best therapy options available to them — something I certainly wish I had when I was fighting cancer. That’s why I want to help advance the field further and ensure that all patients have access to it. But I recognize there is still a lot of work to be done. I’ve lost close friends and loved ones because biomarker testing either wasn’t done at all, or results weren’t used or received in time to help inform their cancer treatment plans. Seeing people I care about be unable to get the best treatment options that were available to them because of an incorrect or incomplete diagnosis due to a lack of biomarker testing is what gets me out of bed each morning.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m really excited about the work we’re doing to help redefine cancer care as part of our Precision Medicine Ambition. Unfortunately, biomarker testing isn’t as widely utilized as it should be today, and one of our core beliefs at AstraZeneca is that every person should have access to timely, accurate information about the unique qualities, or genetic mutations, causing their cancer. So, we’re collaborating with leading community stakeholders to tackle the barriers that are preventing all patients from benefiting from it. One of the biggest, for example, is a lack of awareness, so we’ve focused on supporting efforts that educate and inform patients, policymakers and healthcare providers about precision medicine and biomarker testing. But we know that we’re only one piece of the puzzle. I firmly believe that we need the collective expertise of the entire oncology community to drive meaningful, long-lasting change for those affected by and living with cancer.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?

I’ve spent the last 17 years of my career and education steeped in oncology at several pharmaceutical, biotech and diagnostic companies. As a cancer survivor myself, I also have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to receive a cancer diagnosis and navigate all the complexities that come with it.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is exactly cancer?

Cancer, at its most basic definition, is the uncontrolled growth of cells. All the cells in our bodies contain DNA, which provides instructions for creating the billions of new cells we make every day. These instructions are constantly being copied as part of this process, and sometimes they don’t copy correctly. These errors are called genetic mutations. Sometimes, they’re harmless. Other times, they can lead to the development of cancer. If cancerous cells do develop, they can multiply quickly and eventually crowd out the normal, healthy cells. That’s typically when you start noticing cancer symptoms.

What causes cancer?

Some people are born with genetic mutations that can increase their risk of developing cancer. For example, BRCA gene mutations can lead to the development of breast and ovarian cancers. For other people, genomic mutations can arise throughout the course of their lives that make it more likely for cancer to develop over time — such as from the natural process of aging or increased risk associated with smoking or sun exposure.

What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?

Cancer is generally classified based on where it is or where it starts in the body. For example, breast cancer is cancer that is or started in the breast. But within a tumor type, you can often classify even further and find out more about the specific attributes of the cancer you have through biomarkers, which are molecules that drive your tumor’s growth. Some examples of common cancer biomarkers you may have heard of are BRCA 1, BRCA 2, HER2 and EGFR. Biomarkers are incredibly useful for doctors because they can give them a sense of how a person’s cancer could progress, how easy or difficult it may be to treat and what treatment options may work best.

I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?

First and foremost, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to stay up to date on preventative screenings and appointments. It can be difficult, but it’s the best chance you have at detecting cancer early. Catching cancer in its early stages — before it has time to spread and wreak havoc on your body — can increase your chances of successful treatment. If you’ve delayed seeing your doctor or postponed a screening due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I urge you to resume those health visits as soon as possible.

How can one detect the main forms of cancer?

The preventative screenings I just mentioned and regular visits to your doctor can both help catch many types of cancer early. If your doctor suspects you might have cancer, they will likely take a small sample of the tumor — called a biopsy — to determine if it is cancerous or benign. If it turns out to be cancer, they can conduct more tests on that sample to figure out the type of cancer you have, how far it has progressed and if there are any biomarkers driving its growth to inform your treatment.

Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?

Advancements in research and treatments — such as precision medicine, for example — have enabled us to make tremendous gains in cancer survivorship in recent years. Much of the innovation to date has helped treat patients with advanced disease. At AstraZeneca, we’re now working on approaches to identify and treat patients at an earlier stage of their disease, because the earlier we can detect and treat cancer, the closer we may get to finding a potential cure.

Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?

Precision medicine has completely transformed the patient experience, and I’m very excited to see how it continues to advance in the years to come. Biomarker-driven treatment options are on the rise. These options, also known as ‘targeted therapies’, allow us to be much more precise in how we target cancer, which often makes the drugs much more effective. The timeline for developing these targeted treatments is now considerably shorter than it used to be, and we’re constantly looking for new ways to make them even more precise. Emerging technologies — between machine learning tools and artificial intelligence — are further enhancing the ability of researchers to design better targeted approaches and therapeutic options, which can eventually expand beyond oncology to help even more patients.

Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?

It’s very easy to focus on appointments, but this time in between is also critical. There are many different resources available outside of hospitals and doctor’s offices that can be of great help to patients throughout their cancer journey — for example, with mental health and nutritional planning, among many other things. There are also other services like acupuncture that can help alleviate specific ailments. Emotional support is critical, too. I know firsthand how emotionally draining it is to navigate life with cancer, and highly recommend that patients take advantage of the many support groups out there. Don’t be afraid to lean on others and ask for help, including from your family and friends, to get you through this difficult time. Taking this type of holistic view of your cancer and the ways it’s impacting you mentally, emotionally and physically can make all the difference in your healing process.

From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?

One way you can support someone affected by cancer is by being part of their emotional and physical support system. Navigating cancer and all that comes with it is incredibly overwhelming, and it can take over a patient’s life to the point that they sometimes forget the simple things they would normally do on a day-to-day basis to take care of themselves — like maintaining good nutrition or securing access to child or pet care. Just asking how you can help or by being there for the person and helping with these small tasks might not seem like much, but it can have a powerful impact.

You can also inform and educate yourself on that person’s cancer — what different treatment paths look like, what resources are available, etc — and be their advocate at any doctor’s visit to make sure they’re getting the care they need.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that people just have ‘a’ cancer, when in reality, everyone has a highly specific type of cancer. That information, which healthcare professionals obtain through biomarker testing, is crucial for them to understand so that they can tailor treatments to what is likely to work best for an individual person’s body.

Another is that cancer diagnoses can often still be perceived as something you can’t recover from. While not all cancers are the same, and some are more difficult to treat than others, we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress that has allowed us to develop medicines that both extend patients’ lives and improve their quality of life. Scientists are working to advance cancer care even further every day, and I’m excited about the new ways we’ll be able to continue improving patients’ lives in the years to come.

Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t skip out on preventative screenings. Too many people think that if they feel healthy, they don’t need to go for a regular wellness visit or be screened for cancer. But getting screened according to recommended guidelines regardless of whether you feel good or not may save your life. The earlier your healthcare provider detects your cancer, the sooner they find the best treatment for you, and the better chance you have of survival.
  2. Precision medicine has changed cancer care for the better. Thanks to biomarker testing, healthcare providers can now identify the genomic drivers of cancer and treat individual patients in unique ways based on their specific cancer type — which may greatly improve patient outcomes. Biomarker testing may also help patients avoid unnecessary treatments and their often-high associated costs.
  3. More education is needed to help increase awareness and understanding of precision medicine. Even with its many known benefits, precision medicine is not as widely utilized as it should be today. Testing terminology is complex, and oftentimes result reports can be difficult to interpret and communicate, among other barriers. We, along with many organizations in the oncology community, are actively working to address these education barriers and ensure both patients and providers have the tools they need to have effective, two-way conversations about precision medicine.
  4. Be your own advocate. You can take the reins of your appointments to make sure that they meet your needs. I know patients that have found it helpful to make a list of all the questions and topics they want to discuss with their healthcare providers beforehand. Do your own research, and don’t be afraid to ask about biomarker testing — especially if it’s not offered to you.
  5. Cancer is all-consuming. A cancer diagnosis takes just as much of a toll on your mental and emotional well-being as it does on your body physically. In addition to medical care, emotional support from family and caregivers is crucial to giving anyone fighting cancer the highest probability of overcoming it and having the best quality of life possible.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊

A movement that provides greater transparency into what it’s like to be battling a cancer diagnosis would be powerful. That can help increase public awareness and understanding of the challenges that cancer patients face each day, and ultimately expose ways to provide better support to those who have been impacted by cancer. This type of movement could help encourage people to keep up with preventative screenings, too.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can read more of my thoughts on the latest in precision medicine on my LinkedIn. I encourage you to also visit AstraZeneca’s Your Cancer website to learn more about our work to achieve our Precision Medicine Ambition.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your great work.

About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and to cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified wellness coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), stage 3 cancer survivor, podcaster, writer, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC.

Savio pens a weekly newsletter at thehumanresolve.com where he delves into secrets from living smarter to feeding your “three brains” — head 🧠, heart 💓, and gut 🤰 — in hopes of connecting the dots to those sticky parts in our nature that matter.

He has been featured on Fox News, and has collaborated with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, Food Network, WW, and Bloomberg. His mission is to offer clients, listeners, and viewers alike tangible takeaways on living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle.

Savio lives in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York and continues to follow his boundless curiosity. He hopes to one day live out a childhood fantasy and explore outer space.

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Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor