ASCO Education
ASCO Education
Jun 28, 2022
Oncology, Etc. – In Conversation with Dr. Richard Pazdur (Part 2)
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In part two this ASCO Education Podcast episode, hosts Dr. David Johnson and Dr. Patrick Loehrer continue their conversation with Dr. Richard Pazdur, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Oncology Center of Excellence, focusing on his leadership and vision for improving cancer care worldwide. The conversation includes reflection on drug toxicities, approval processes, and complexity of clinical trials. If you liked this episode, please subscribe. Learn more at, or email us at



Dr. Pat Loehrer: Hi. I’m Pat Loehrer, the Director of Global Oncology and Health Equity at Indiana University.

Dr. Dave Johnson: And hi. I’m Dave Johnson at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: This is the second half of our Oncology, Etc. conversation with Dr. Rick Pazdur, who’s the director of the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence. In Part 1, we chatted with Dr. Pazdur about his upbringing and his early career. Today, we’re going to focus on his leadership and vision for improving cancer care worldwide. But first, we’ll discuss how cancer has impacted his life personally.


I want to flash-forward. I had the pleasure of knowing Mary. And there was no question, if you had a problem in oncology, you would go to Mary and not Rick Pazdur when you were a house staff member. But moving forward a bit, I’m not sure if all the listeners know that Mary came down with ovarian cancer. Dave himself had cancer. My wife had breast cancer. It is incredibly hard to be an oncologist I think when your spouse or someone who’s close to you has cancer, and particularly, being married to a medical oncology nurse. Maybe just share a little bit about that journey of being a husband of a-

Dr. Richard Pazdur: Yeah. It is interesting because going back to the Rush story, the first patient that my wife and I had in common, and this is so ironic, was a patient with ovarian cancer. The last patient that we had in common was her, which is some ironic fate, so to speak. And the story began of her illness was right around Labor Day. We had gone to Chicago in February driving back from Chicago. I noticed that she kept on taking a whole bunch of Tums and then saying - Oh, I just got a lot of GI symptoms, and she went to see her gastroenterologist or GP and he said, ‘Oh, this is just, you know, indigestion.’ And two weeks after that or not even that, she was in the hospital with a massive amount of ascites, needed an intensive care unit. It was readily apparent just on getting her CA 125 what she had and she wound up one day in debulking surgery and then IP chemotherapy, etc.

I think something that I learned, and I think we knew from the very beginning that this was not going to be a curable illness, and how to deal with that on an emotional level. And I have to give my wife credit. She spared me a lot of the emotion because she was such a strong person. She made all of her own calls as far as what she wanted. She would ask me what I thought, but she would do her own research, she would go to her own doctors’ appointments. She said, ‘You don’t really need to come with me. I’m self-sufficient.’ She was very much interested in helping other cancer patients, and after she died, I think one of the most cherished conversations I had was a group of women that came to me and said how much she helped them during their support group because she was a nurse. She knew she was dying. She had emotional maturity not to fall apart but to accept the inevitable in a very strong way.

My wife was a very religious person, had gone to Catholic schools, really embraced religion during those terminal years basically. And I think that was a great sense of comfort to her. But it did teach me a lot of lessons when you take care of somebody that has cancer, and that is, what a bad job we do with drug toxicities. Drug toxicities to medical oncologists and especially the people at the FDA are numbered, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 1. These toxicities are tolerable, tolerable to who, so to speak. And how to manage these toxicities and how they interrupt your life is one of the lasting experience I have, which I always will remember. And that has been one of my roles recently is forming several programs that we have in the OCE to look at dosing, to look at what is this definition if the drug is tolerable or well-tolerated or if the toxicities could be managed.

I always say, yeah, every toxicity could be managed, even death. You call the undertaker to manage it. So what do you really mean by that statement. But I think the issue of toxicity is an important one. And then also going on clinical trials and having people considering what you want to go on, what risk you want to take, and what is actually in the informed consent and how meaningful that is.

Dr. Dave Johnson: Really glad you brought that up, Rick. That matches my own experience with lymphoma and going through chemotherapy. And as an oncologist, one would think I would know what the side effects are. I’d recounted them dozens and dozens of times to people over the years, but until you’ve actually experienced them either personally or up close as you did with Mary, it’s impossible to fully understand. I’ll give you one example.

Fatigue. Everybody thinks they know what fatigue is, but until you’ve had chemotherapy-induced fatigue, the fatigue that never abates, you just don’t understand what it is. It’s debilitating in ways that are unimaginable to most people. So I’m sure that experience certainly shaped your view and your role at the FDA.

Dr. Richard Pazdur: Correct.

Dr. Dave Johnson: I wonder, if you might share, you initiated a number of programs recently, including programs to try to improve coordination and co-operation amongst the pharmaceutical companies. Could you speak to some of those programs for us?

Dr. Richard Pazdur: I think one of my favorite programs is Project Orbis. Project Orbis is an idea I had when I was walking down the street. It just hit me. When I came to the FDA, one of the things I rapidly noticed is how isolated the FDA was, even from the rest from the regulatory agencies throughout the world. There was very little cross-fertilization there. So one of the very first things that I did was set up a monthly tele-conference first with the EMA, the European Medicines Agency, and then we ended on Health Canada, Australia, Japan, Singapore, you name it. And one of the things that became really apparent to me, we at the FDA got applications always first—always. That’s obvious. You know why they had given it to us first? The money. That’s where the finances are going to be.

So we got the application first, and it could be 2 years, 18 months, 12 months, that these other countries, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and Brazil, Israel, would get these applications. And I said, well, this isn’t right, really, because these people, they have cancer. They have every right to get these medications as soon as possible, and also we have such a large agency. We have 80 to 100 oncologists that work there, and most of these agencies have one or two oncologists. So our expertise in oncology at the FDA is so much greater than these other regulatory agencies. How can we leverage that to help these other countries?

So we started Project Orbis, and what it was is that companies come in and they submit an application and they simultaneously submit the same application to the countries that want to participate in the program. They are all preselected and have confidentiality agreements with each other. And we worked together on the applications, basically reviewing the applications. So we had many meetings, tele-conversations, telephone conversations with countries. So that expedites these drugs. This has really had a lasting impact because from a worldwide perspective, it’s really promoted more rapid development of drugs and rapid approval of drugs, and that’s important because that establishes sooner new standards of care that will impact future trials.

So in addition to the humanitarian issue of improving healthcare for patients in these countries, it has an impact on the global clinical trial system by having new standards approved much faster and accepted by world authorities.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: Let me just jump on that for a second, just to make a comment. Back when we were growing up, there would be like three to five drugs approved-

Dr. Richard Pazdur: Yeah.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: And today, it’s like once a week, there’s a new indication for oncologists.

Dr. Dave Johnson: Our listeners have another question that might be appropriate to ask at this time. What is the most common mistake that drug companies make in their applications to the FDA or in the process of trying to get their drug approved? Is there a frequent mistake that you can advise them?

Dr. Richard Pazdur: Well, they don’t come and talk to us. That’s number one. They want, not necessarily what the best registration pathway is, but what the quickest registration pathway is. And sometimes the quickest registration pathway, especially single arm trials, are not the best registrations pathway. So my advice is rather than playing games with the FDA, to put it in the vernacular, just do the right thing and say, what is the optimal information that patients need when I develop this drug.

We’re seeing a lot of problems now with various drugs where people are developing in a refractory disease setting a drug, and they plan on getting accelerated approval on a response rate. So they push and push the dose. And with a single arm study, you can’t really evaluate safety that well. Everything is attributed to the drug, and they want to get the highest response rate. And they get it, and there’s a confirmatory study, and the arm of the confirmatory study, the control arm may not be as toxic as theirs, and we’re seeing a wave of drugs that now have inferior survival compared to controls, which probably is predicated upon, they got the wrong dose. And I think that is one of the major programs that we have, that we need to address is dosing in oncology, this ‘More is better, more is better,’ and ‘Let’s push the dose as high as possible.’

More isn’t even probably good in cytotoxic days, but certainly, not a good idea in targeted therapies and certainly not a good idea in biological therapy. So we've really got to think about dosing more, penetration of targets, what’s the optimal dose rather than what’s the highest dose. You know as well as I do, pharmaceutical companies want to go with the highest dose because the major hurdle is the demonstration of efficacy, even in a randomized study. So nobody wants to be blamed by saying, well, you spent $100 million on a Phase 3 study and it’s negative because you used too low of a dose. But then at the end of the day, we don’t have a really good tolerable dose, and it’s really hard to go backwards and look at dosing after a drug was already approved because the efficacy study has already been done.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: The other aspect of drug companies is not only getting the dosage there, but also the duration. There is motivation for money, and so patients are going to and-

Dr. Richard Pazdur: Oh, count on that.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: So it begs a question, and I know the FDA can’t do this, but in other countries, there is a monetary review together with the toxicity review. Can you reflect a little bit about that to the best of your ability?

Dr. Richard Pazdur: Well, even within our simpler agencies, they may communicate more than we do with CMS, but all oncology drugs that when they’re approved are then paid for by CMS, okay? In these other countries, that is not so. They may get approval and then they have to go to these health assessment agencies that will decide and argue with the companies what the pricing of the drug is. I think it’s a mistake, honestly, for the FDA to get into pricing. We have a hard enough time with efficacy and safety, and pricing is a very ephemeral concept because it could change on a dialing. Somebody could promise you, you should approve their drug because it’s much cheaper on Monday, and on Friday, they could say, 'Oops, we made a mistake. We really think that this dose has to be X number of dollars.' And you could see competition hasn’t worked well in oncology with seven PD-1 drugs approved, pricing has not really been of any movement here.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: I’m sorry. Dave may have another question, but let me ask you this. Going back to the clinical trials and what industry asked you- the complexity of clinical trials is going up logarithmically compared to the way they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In many of the trials where we have to get all this data in order to soothe the FDA, what are your thoughts about simplifying clinical trials?

Dr. Richard Pazdur: Oh yeah. I’m for it. I am for it. If you really look at it, these are not FDA requirements for the most part. The companies want them, all of this data because it’s controlled. They don’t want to be blamed at the end of the day for not capturing this data or that data. They have developed complicated bureaucracies, going back in my sociology days there, complicated bureaucracies to gather all of this data, the whole CRO industry to go out and pester you guys in practice by doing site visits. It’s a complicated situation and it’s really predicated a lot on the history and bureaucracies that have been built up and not money to strip away those bureaucracies for fear of failure, so to speak, of not catching something.

Dr. Dave Johnson: So Rick, we’re coming to the end of our time that we’ve scheduled. I actually have two questions for you. We’ve asked all of our previous guests, the first of which would be if you could talk to your 21-year-old self today, what advice would you give yourself? After you’ve done that, we’d like to know what books have you been reading lately or is there some documentary that you’ve seen that you would recommend to us and our listeners?

Dr. Richard Pazdur: I would tell myself, when I was 21 years old, relax and be less anxious. All things pass. I think we get so anxious when we’re young about relatively small things. I remember my first ASCO presentation, I was petrified. My heart was beating out of my chest. I was sweating. And like relax. It’s one of a thousand presentations at ASCO. We tend to magnify things, and I think age puts things in perspective. This in the reality of the world is a small thing, and people probably won’t even remember it.

Dr. Dave Johnson: Excellent advice.

Dr. Richard Pazdur: My favorite author that I’m reading now for the last couple of months is a presidential historical author, Doris Kearns Goodwin. I think many of you know, she’s written many books. I love her writing style. And I like non-fiction. I like biographies and I like history books, history stories rather than mysteries or things like that, fantasy books. The two books that I really enjoyed, the first one was No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. I don’t know if anybody’s read that. It’s an excellent book. Most of our attention in World War II is directed toward Europe and what was going on in Europe, the battlefields, etc., which I’m not a big fan of reading about battles and stuff, but this was what was going on in The White House and the relationships of all of the people that came there. It was like a hotel almost with the personalities that were flowing through including Churchill and various princes and queens, etc.

But also the interesting relation, the fascinating relationship that Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt had, I don’t know how to describe the relationship. It truly was an unconventional relationship based on some past history that they had of affairs etc., but it was just a fascinating one.

The best book, though, again I’m reading now, is written also by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and it is Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Doris Kearns Johnson was his biographer and spent a great deal of time with him in The White House as well as when he left The White House. But it’s an excellent book on management and reading people, success. One of the things that is most interesting about Lyndon Johnson, and especially when he was running the senate before he became president, was his ability to know what motivated people and how to use that to form a consensus. Does this person want to go on this trip. I’ll give it to him and then he could help me with this. Does this person want to go to this party or get on this position in congress? So it was really a skillset that he had, which I think most leaders need to know. You have to motivate people. You can’t lead by an autocratic masthead, but you’ve got to lead from what do people want and to make sure that they feel you have a personal relationship with them.

As I say to my staff, everything in life is personal—everything.

Dr. Dave Johnson: Well, it’s been a great session, Rick. We so much appreciate your willingness to spend time with us. We wish we had twice as much time. I’m sure we could go on for hours. Thanks again, and we appreciate all you do at the FDA. You’ve been a fabulous leader, and we hope you continue on for many years to come.

Dr. Richard Pazdur: Thank you so much, Dave, and thank you so much, Pat.

Dr. Pat Loehrer: Great to see you.

Dr. Dave Johnson: Pat, before we leave, any idea why our patients seem to get sick on Saturday and Sunday?

Dr. Pat Loehrer: I have no clue. Do you know the answer, Dave?

Dr. Dave Johnson: Yes. They have a weekend immunity.

Thank you for listening to the ASCO Education Podcast. To stay up to date with the latest episodes, please click subscribe. Let us know what you think by leaving a review. For more information, visit the Comprehensive Education Center at

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions.

Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. Guest statements on the podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.



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