Photo of Dr. Javier Cortes

4 Questions with Dr. Javier Cortes: The Importance of Scientific Exchange to Advance Breast Cancer

Stories@Gilead - September 12, 2022 - 5 min read

For  Dr. Javier Cortes, being a breast cancer researcher isn’t just a profession – it’s a calling. As the head of the International Breast Cancer Center (IBCC) in Madrid and Barcelona, he has made it not only his life’s work but also his personal mission to help improve the lives of the people he treats every day.

As the oncology community gathers for the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO) Congress in Paris, we sat down with Javier to learn why scientific exchange and the gathering of researchers is so necessary, both for people living with cancer and for those who work in the field.

Q: Your commitment to research, in addition to providing care to people living with cancer, has spanned your career. Why do you feel so strongly about balancing clinical care with scientific discovery?
The exchange of science is what you might call a lynchpin for medicine. It’s key to advancing research that has the best chance to be successful and to improve the lives of the people we treat. It’s key to helping physicians improve our own clinical practice and how we actually treat people. It also helps ensure people with breast cancer live longer, and hopefully better, than people who were diagnosed ten years ago. This is why I’ve dedicated my life to research.

We treat people locally; we spend our time in the hospital, treating and caring for people who are fighting breast cancer right now. But real science is global. The best research comes from international efforts – clinical trials and multi-country studies – that take advantage of the whole wealth of knowledge we’re each collecting in our labs, our hospitals and our clinics. As physicians we owe it to the people we treat to bring back every learning we can for our own clinical practice.

Q: Why are ESMO and medical meetings in oncology so important, even after years like the last few, where the world has been focused on a global pandemic and so much more?
I’ve attended cancer meetings more than 100 times over the past twenty years, and ESMO is one of the most important gatherings of the year for oncology researchers, especially for breast cancer. Trials don’t stop, research doesn’t stop and the people we treat don’t suddenly feel better because the world is focused on something else. The advances in metastatic breast cancer that we’ve seen recently have been a tremendous illustration of this. We almost have no choice: cancer research requires an eye on today, but most especially an eye on tomorrow. We have to be here, we have to be committed, and we have to keep learning. We owe it to people living with cancer now and to those we’ll see ten years from now. I’m excited to be back in person in Paris!

Q: What are some of the key research takeways or learnings from medical meetings like these?
At medical meetings like ESMO, one of the biggest benefits is that we get to see follow-up data and more specific sub-group analyses of the most important studies. We’ll always get the big results and the major data out of large, randomized trials, which are necessary for confirming how or if a treatment will work. But confirming real survival results and seeing sub-group analyses are critical to everyday medicine. As physicians, we see people of all sizes, ages and backgrounds; no two people I treat are exactly alike. In diseases like triple-negative breast cancer, for instance, where disease characteristics are so varied and we still don’t fully understand how the tumor works, there are many different factors we must take into account. To make sure I can give the people in my clinic the best treatment possible, I need to know as much as I can about their cancer and how the treatment might work for them – analyses of specific groups of patients within larger trials often helps me do that.

Q: When you bring these research findings back to your practice, what does it mean to you?
When you look at the face of someone you’re treating and they’re smiling, you understand it’s because of all of the clinical research you’ve done, all the ESMO and ASCO meetings you’ve attended and all the weeks and months and years of studies you’ve undertaken. That is the moment that all of this work is for.

After God and my family, I would say that my breast cancer research is the most important part of my life, and it’s because of this experience – knowing that you are helping people live.

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