COVID-19 and Blood Cancer: A Conversation with Nadim Ahmed, Executive Vice President and President, Hematology

How advances in science and novel therapies are changing treatment and enhancing access for blood cancer patients

October 27, 2020
T

he COVID-19 pandemic has left many patients around the world anxious about safely accessing their medicines. This is particularly true for cancer patients who often must visit a hospital or clinic to have a healthcare professional administer their treatments.  

On the heels of Bristol Myers Squibb’s annual Global Patient Week celebration, Executive Vice President and President, Hematology Nadim Ahmed shares how the company is making certain treatments more accessible for people living with cancer and serious blood diseases through changes in the administration, delivery and even education about these therapies. 

Executive Vice President and President, Hematology Nadim Ahmed

Executive Vice President and President, Hematology Nadim Ahmed

Q: What are the current challenges faced by blood cancer patients, especially in the age of COVID?  

In the U.S. alone, more than 1.3 million people are living with or in remission from some form of blood cancer, which includes diseases like lymphoma, leukemia and multiple myeloma. While there have been extraordinary scientific advances in diagnosis and treatment for these patients, blood cancers still make up more than 10% of all new cancer diagnoses each year. In addition, patients of all ages living with blood cancer face challenges that can range from fatigue and compromised immune systems to relapses and shortened lifespans.  

Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the risk of delayed diagnosis and delayed treatments. Patients are putting off routine blood work and HCP visits, and even cancer treatment, due to concerns about getting treatments at hospitals and doctors’ offices. We have also seen disruption in some of our clinical studies, though we’ve worked closely with healthcare agencies to promote patient safety as they come back online. The pandemic has also taxed the healthcare system as healthcare workers have had to find ways to safely treat and accommodate cancer patients while also treating coronavirus patients and protecting themselves.  

Q: How are Bristol Myers Squibb’s approaches helping address concerns among blood cancer patients and the physicians who treat them? 

We recently launched three new blood cancer therapies that may help blood cancer patients reduce the need for physician visits or hospitalizations. Certain blood cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and stem cell transplants, require patients to be hospitalized, and many patients require blood transfusions, which can involve lengthy stays in medical centers. Our new therapies, used in specific diseases, include oral medications that can be taken at home and injectable medications that may reduce the need for other outpatient care, like transfusions. These are welcome additions to existing blood cancer treatment options. 

Q. In addition to the new therapeutics, what other initiatives has Bristol Myers Squibb put in place to provide help for cancer patients and that support safe and easy access to the company’s medicines during this time? 

During COVID-19, we’ve found that patients are most concerned about having access to their medications and treatments and are seeking information that helps them safely navigate the healthcare system. 

To that end, for some of our oral medications, we have extended the number of pills per prescription. By ensuring patients have an adequate supply of medicine, we are helping them avoid unnecessary visits to medical centers and the pharmacy.  

We’ve also committed to helping patients who have lost their jobs and healthcare coverage as a result of the pandemic. In the United States, qualifying patients can receive their Bristol Myers Squibb therapies at no cost. 

In terms of treatment, education and awareness, we’ve been able to leverage our investments in digital technology over the past few years to continue providing support and education to physicians and healthcare professionals through a host of digital platforms, all while maintaining a safe physical distance. We also switched to virtual launches and remote training for new therapies, allowing our teams to virtually interact with healthcare providers who have increasingly moved to telemedicine during this time.  

Lastly, as we know, COVID-19 has been an isolating and challenging time — even more so for those fighting serious diseases who need support and education to help them navigate their treatment journey. In July, we launched the COVID Advocacy Exchange, a virtual platform that brings together advocacy organizations, patients and members of the healthcare industry to exchange information. This platform provides patients, BMS and other patient advocacy groups a sense of connection and a place to share important resources about treatments to help patients navigate their journey during the pandemic. We also use the platform to gather important feedback from patients about how we can continue to support them during this time. 

Q. Can you expand on how Bristol Myers Squibb plans to continue to advance treatment for those diagnosed with blood cancers? 

Many of our novel hematologic therapies have made significant strides in the treatment of their respective diseases. That said, the field of hematology continues to move at an unprecedented speed, and we have an opportunity to potentially help even more patients by expanding the use of our modalities into earlier settings and by using novel combination approaches. For example, while significant advancements have been made in the outcomes and evolution of treatments for patients with multiple myeloma, the disease remains largely incurable and many patients ultimately relapse with existing treatments. To address these challenges, we are developing a rich pipeline of potential medicines through new modalities such as B-cell maturation antigen (BCMA)-targeting and protein homeostasis. 

Cell therapy is also a very important part of our long-term research, development and commercialization efforts. We believe it has the potential to significantly transform patient outcomes, both today and in the future, and so we are evaluating ways to optimize CAR T cell design and manufacturing to improve efficacy further, reduce cost, increase speed and reliability, and enhance safety. We’re also researching ways to make CAR T cell therapy more broadly available at even more treatment facilities.  

Q. What advice would you provide blood cancer patients navigating their disease and COVID-19? 

During Global Patient Week, our team heard many stories about the challenges COVID-19 has presented for patients. Our advice for blood cancer patients – and everyone – during this time is to keep speaking with their doctors and get required screenings and recommended treatments. This will not only help with earlier detection, but also ensure that patients have access to the therapies and programs that can make a difference in their treatment journey.  

Our team also heard countless patient stories of sheer courage and resilience. That only motivates us to work harder to continue innovating and advancing science to help patients live better and longer lives.