Trends In Oncology: Medical Science Liaisons

Josh Pirtle
Feb 9, 2021

MSL Looking for Excitement? Oncology Is the Specialty to Be In!

Oncology is arguably the most exciting and fast-paced medical specialty with job opportunities abound and highest growth rates for medical science liaisons. In this blog, we give you a short overview of the most interesting developments in oncology over the last years.

Treatments and Drugs

2017 saw the approval of the first two chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T cell) treatments in the US. This novel class of therapies relies on the patient’s own, modified T cells to fight cancer. The success of these treatments, which are limited to particular patient groups and cancer types, has been nothing short of astounding. Limited to patients who have no other treatment options left, overall survival rates in clinical trials were upwards of 75%.

But it is not just the very cutting-edge of medical research that has achieved remarkable success, the American Society of Clinical Oncology reports in their 2019 Annual Report that 130+ new cancer drugs and indications have been approved since 2006, that the five year survival rate has improved to two-thirds of cancer patients and consequently the number of cancer survivors has increased.


ASCO Annual Report

The Challenge of Effectively Treating Rare Cancers

Progress has also been made in treating rare cancers. Take together these cancers make up about 20% of all the cancer cases in the US, but every single one accounts for less than six of 100,000 diagnosed cancer cases. The challenges in treating these cancers range from understanding the complex underlying biology to recruiting enough patients to conduct clinical trials. A much better understanding of the molecular basis of the disease and new combination therapy approaches have led to some successes in treating these rare forms of cancers.

The Cost of Treating Cancer

There was bound to be some bad news in all of this and the cost of cancer drugs, especially those new, personalized treatments, is it. The numbers on a global level look like this: worldwide spending on cancer drugs was around $110 billion with an additional $23 billion going into supportive care, i.e. medications used to lessen the harmful side effects of cancer treatments.

The US alone accounted with $50 billion for about 45% of global spending while the rest of the world is responsible for about $60 billion or 55%. With the US representing approximately 4.4% of the world’s population, these numbers already tell a story.

Cost for cancer treatments have risen dramatically in the US: in the five years between 2012 and 2017 spending on cancer drugs doubled, with the lion share of that growth going toward drugs launched within the last 5 years.

Despite a large number of different cancers and indications, spending on cancer drugs is very concentrated: 35 drugs account for approx. 80% of the expense while the bottom half of the drugs make less than $90 million per year.

What is driving the cost of cancer treatments up are – at least in part – the exorbitant cost of the personalized immuno-therapeutics, especially the CAR T-cell therapies. The price tags for the two approved one-time drugs ranges somewhere between $375,000 and $475,000 per patients plus hospitalization cost, which can push them above $1 million per patient.

What the Future Holds

The pipeline for new cancer drugs contains around 700 drugs in late stage development, according to the IQVIA Global Oncology Trends Report (download link). The report also points to another trend: about 1/3 of the trials are now using biomarkers to stratify patients.

In Phase I and II trials, an increasing number of drugs are immunotherapies targeted at an ever-broader array of tumor types.

Both developments indicate that an increasing number of personalized treatments for cancer patients in the future.

Changes in Oncology – What Do They Mean for MSLs?

The speed with which new, cutting-edge drugs and personalized treatments, such as CAR T-cell therapies, are developed and approved leads to an explosion of new scientific data, e.g. new mechanisms of action that require explanation or real-world data, making it increasingly hard for physicians to stay abreast of all the developments.

It falls in part to MSLs to support HCPs with more in-depth, real-time information and reaching out to an increasingly global network on highly specialized oncology KOLs.

As treatments get more customized, so does the information MSLs will need to provide HCPs, consequentially MSLs are bound to become ever more critical in their role as scientific peers, whom HCPs can rely on for relevant, current and unbiased information.