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Astellas innovation awards offer up ideas to ease cancer patients’ pandemic burdens

This years’ Astellas cancer care challenge brought home the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic for cancer patients.

Now in its fifth year, the C3 award submissions included many ideas aimed at alleviating the added burden and anxiety the pandemic created for cancer patients as well as people newly diagnosed during the crisis.

The 2020 submissions were “very much in tune to some of the things that were exaggerated through COVID—the isolation people feel and the anxiety associated with COVID,” Anthony Yanni, Astellas senior VP and head of patient-centricity, said.

One of the three finalists, Lisa McKenzie, is CEO of the “You Night” events she created years ago to empower women with cancer through shared in-person gatherings. That changed in 2020, of course, so her team pivoted to create a new digital platform to help cancer survivors tell their stories.

“Instead of COVID being a curse for our organization, it ended up being the biggest blessing ever because we invented a whole new program that not only allowed us to share their stories in such a powerful way, but ended up being a therapeutic tool for the women to see themselves differently,” she says in a video on the You Night website.

McKenzie’s “Story Crafting” e-course was one of two runner-up ideas that took home $50,000 each. Valeria Arango Vélez, an oncologist and cancer survivor from Colombia, took home the other second prize with a mind-body therapy app to help people cope with the daily emotional challenges cancer presents.

The top $100,000 prize went to radiation oncologist Omolola Salako of Nigeria, who won for her Oncopadi online and mobile app that connects cancer patients to the specialists and hospitals they need in Nigeria. This was Salako’s fourth year pitching in the Astellas’ contest.

“This prize sends a clear message to the organization that part of how we deliver better services is to listen and to be open to ideas,” Yanni said, adding that the presentations push every Astellas employee to realize there are patients issues they may not know about and should consider.

A new twist this year opened the door to the public with a virtual watch party in late March. Streamed on Facebook Live, the event featured the three finalists presenting their ideas to the panel of judges.

Astellas was one of the first pharmas to launch an innovation challenge, which was initially created under then-U.S. oncology chief Mark Reisenauer. He was promoted in February to take over as president of the Astellas pharma business in the U.S.