Transforming Health Care

No two battles are alike

By supporting the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer in its advanced research and tumor analysis, WBA helps stare down the complexity of cancer.

Walkers taking a rest whilst out walking in the mountain of the Lake District, UK

The unforgiving nature of cancer demands so much of everyone trying to help. It takes more than medicines, more than support for patients and families, more than research. It takes all of these things, together – and so much more – to truly make a dent in the lives of those affected by the disease. 

Back in 2011, Walgreens Boots Alliance (then Alliance Boots) sought a way to help the fight against cancer, outside of the support the company provided through its pharmacies and wholesale division. They needed a strong partner that could enable research at scale and make a lasting, widespread impact on the state of oncology care.

“With cancer being a leading cause of death worldwide, we felt WBA should do all we can to accelerate and facilitate support for research and prevention,” says Ornella Barra, co-chief operating officer, WBA, and chairman of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility Committee. “We wanted to help bring together the best minds to fight the disease, while simultaneously providing assistance through other programs and partnerships for people living with cancer, their loved ones and caregivers.”

Enter the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC), an organization that for close to 60 years has been empowering researchers across Europe to find the most effective treatments or treatment combinations across disciplines and tumor types. For the past eight years, WBA has supported EORTC as it stares down the complexities of cancer and uses the power of many to impact individual lives – and the impact of the partnership grows deeper by the day.

Uncovering clues to cancer’s mysteries

Part of why cancer is so hard to beat is because it isn’t just one disease, like measles or polio. It acts differently in different people, even when it occurs in the same organ. Take two people with cancer found in the colon, and you may discover two unique kinds of cancer; one may respond to a particular treatment, and the other won’t. Add in the genetic and environmental influences on any particular person, and the treatment landscape gets even more complex.

Finding the best treatment plans requires an individualized approach – using modern diagnostics that can analyze a tumor down to its molecular level, or map a patient’s genetic code – but also by looking across tumor types and finding similarities in the profiles of other patients all over the world.  By “crowdsourcing” information from patients across borders, doctors and researchers can find clues that can lead to advances in care.

With this in mind, WBA struck its first five-year partnership with EORTC in 2011 to create the first SPECTA (Screening Patients for Efficient Clinical Trial Access) infrastructure for colorectal cancer in Europe.

For scientists, SPECTA meant accessing many colorectal tumors in the biobank for translational research – meaning researchers could analyze many colorectal tumors and then apply that knowledge to future clinical trials and methods to help treat the cancers.

After showing success in colorectal research, SPECTA expanded into lung cancer and rare solid tumor types.

“The partnership with WBA has really supported clinical cancer research in the era of precision oncology,” says Dr. Denis Lacombe, EORTC Director General. “The knowledge gained from addressing a patient’s molecular biology can now be extended to more cancers, enabling us to develop better treatments across tumors.”

The methodology developed by EORTC has been extremely effective: it is widely recognized as one of the leading infrastructures for sustaining clinical research in precision oncology in Europe, and has been adopted by the European Union for the study of rare adult cancers.

But despite its continent-wide, ambitious reach, SPECTA is dedicated to helping each individual patient who participates in its trials. Each contributor to the trial receives a detailed molecular report of their tumor complete with an action plan for treatment. These results are directly shared with the patients’ doctors, who are able to explain the results in detail. In 2018 alone, around 27 percent of patients screened through the SPECTA platform were offered a treatment based on the report they received.

Going the distance

During the first phase of the partnership (2011 to 2016), WBA’s employee-led fundraising initiatives raised more than €5.2 million ($6.3 million) to support EORTC.

From family fun days to ugly holiday sweater contests, employees across the organization have run marathons and triathalons, baked and sold treats, went bowling and participated in all sorts of fundraising activities since the partnership began. And they don’t show any signs of stopping.

WBA and EORTC recently extended their work together until 2023, with plans to expand SPECTA to all types of cancer, including rare young adolescent cancers. By the end of 2020, the SPECTA platform is expected to work with 254 doctors in more than 180 hospitals in 21 European countries, with WBA committed to raising an additional €5 million ($5.58 million) in the next phase of the partnership.

“WBA has truly helped SPECTA achieve so much in so little time, we are inspired by the determination of WBA and its employees, of how much they care,” says Lacombe. “An infrastructure of this magnitude is quite difficult to put together, especially as it involves multiple countries across Europe. Each country has its own regulations and systems, and there are quality control concerns with collecting samples. WBA’s help has been critical.”