• The 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting presented a multitude of clinical research data on cancer care practices, with a major focus on advancements in breast cancer treatment.
  • Our media analysis found that Novartis’ Kisqali was widely praised for its promise of boosting survival and significantly reducing the chance of recurrence, while Merck’s Keytruda was framed as a new standard of care.
  • Additionally, there was a renewed focus on antibody-drug conjugate pipelines and a shift towards patient-centred care in oncology, emphasising the importance of integrating patients into treatment decision-making.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis

The 2023 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting was once again the platform for the unveiling of compelling clinical data from critical research across malignancies. Thousands of abstracts were presented in oral and poster formats during the 5-day meeting, drawing attendees eager to hear about study results that had the potential to significantly impact cancer care practices.

To see what stood out this year, we analysed 266 English-language articles published in top-tier outlets the last month. Here’s what we found:

1. Breast cancer was in the spotlight again

Akin to the previous year, many publications drew attention to the advancements in breast cancer treatment:

The central focus was on CDK4/6 inhibitors – drugs that block certain proteins (CDK4/6) in cancer cells, hence stopping or slowing their growth. These inhibitors were discussed in the context of both early-stage and metastatic breast cancer.

The new clinical data on the three CDK4/6 inhibitors currently in use – Pfizer’s Ibrance (palbociclib), Novartis’ Kisqali (ribociclib), and Eli Lilly’s Verzenio (abemaciclib) – garnered media attention due to the potential to improve patient outcomes significantly.

Prominently featured was the research on NovartisKisqali (ribociclib), an innovative therapy drug, which operates as a small molecule inhibitor, targeting proteins in breast cancer cells that regulate cell growth. Many media outlets praised the drug’s promise of boosting survival and significantly reducing the chance of recurrence.

This new treatment, previously shown to benefit patients with metastatic disease, was revealed to also enhance outcomes for patients with earlier-stage disease, creating a media ripple due to its potential to alter global practices. A number of journalists noted that this breakthrough signified a leap forward in curbing the threat of cancer returning to a broader patient population.

Another trial that gained traction found that Eli Lilly’s Verzenio benefited individuals diagnosed with early-stage, hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, irrespective of their age. This finding held importance considering the increasing life expectancy and the necessity for effective medication for all age groups.

2. Merck’s Keytruda stole the show

Even though breast cancer was the primary topic of the debate, we found that new lung cancer research on Merck’s Keytruda made this drug the most frequently mentioned one in our research sample:

The attention garnered by Keytruda was primarily due to its potential role as a new standard of care for early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Keytruda’s impact on disease progression was highlighted through newly unveiled data suggesting that its use, both pre and post-surgery, resulted in a 42% reduction in the risk of disease recurrence, progression, or death among patients with resectable stage 2 to 3b NSCLC.

Further amplifying the attention, Keytruda was also mentioned to have outperformed Roche’s Tecentriq, leading to a broader label in adjuvant NSCLC. However, Merck CEO Rob Davis’ statement that the post-surgery indication might take time to gain traction could have introduced an element of suspense and controversy, further feeding media attention.

Interestingly, Keytruda was also the subject of comparison with AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi, another potential competitor in this category. AstraZeneca had recently detailed phase 3 data for Imfinzi, but many journalists indicated that the company’s trial data might be too immature to support an FDA filing, potentially maintaining Keytruda‘s favourable positioning.

3. AstraZeneca shined with its crown jewel

We identified AstraZeneca as the most influential company in terms of media impact. The company’s robust representation, presenting over 130 abstracts featuring 22 approved and potential new medicines across their oncology portfolio, undoubtedly contributed to this considerable media attention.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

A key driver of AstraZeneca‘s high media impact was the spotlight on its drug, Tagrisso, and its demonstrated potential in reducing mortality rates by 50% for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients with an epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutation post-surgery. This means an additional patient out of every 10 would still be alive over a span of five years – a significant improvement that unsurprisingly garnered extensive coverage.

Tagrisso, the crown jewel in AstraZeneca‘s portfolio, already had a significant track record, having brought in $5.4 billion in revenue the previous year. Its established efficacy in treating certain patients with NSCLC who have an EGFR gene mutation further cemented Tagrisso‘s role as the primary treatment for EGFR-mutated lung cancer, highlighting its continued relevance and potential in cancer care.

Our media analysis also revealed Dr. Roy Herbst, the deputy director of Yale Cancer Center and lead author of the study, as the most influential spokesperson in the discussion after ASCO’s own chief clinical officer.

Herbst‘s declaration that the 50% figure was a “big deal,” especially in lung cancer—a disease historically resistant to treatment—was widely cited, adding credibility and significance to the study’s findings and enhancing AstraZeneca‘s media standing.

4. There was a renewed focus on antibody-drug conjugate pipelines

One of the most captivating fields of cancer treatment, antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs), was also a major topic in the conversation. Big pharma companies such as BioNTech and Merck featured prominently in the discourse, supported by several high-profile ASCO abstracts.

Some publications noted that ADC technology, which couples an antibody targeting a cancer cell protein with a toxic compound, has progressed significantly in recent years. It has increasingly become an alternative to traditional chemotherapy, both in the clinic and ongoing trials, providing a compelling narrative for media coverage.

Most recently, the interest in ADCs was fueled by Pfizer‘s acquisition of Seagen, a Seattle-based ADC-specialised biotech, for a whopping $43 billion.

At ASCO, Daiichi Sankyo’s presentation was one of the ADC highlights – the company presented updated results from a Phase 1b trial evaluating its ADC in combination with Keytruda for advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients.

Several journalists noted that China has been a major ADC innovator, with BioNTech and Merck‘s recent licensing of ADC candidates from Chinese companies adding a more international dimension to the media conversation.

5. Patient-centred care emerged as a new priority

ASCO showcased a significant shift towards patient-centred care in oncology, a focus that generated substantial media attention.

Speakers at the meeting underscored the importance of integrating patients into treatment decision-making and providing continuous support throughout their journey.

Key points emphasised included fostering relationships between patients and healthcare teams, especially crucial when battling chronic diseases. It was noted that patients, as experts in their personal experiences, should be integral members of these teams. The diversity of individual responses to diagnosis and evolving feelings during the treatment process was also highlighted.

A concerning issue raised was that less than 10% of patients in the US participate in clinical trials, suggesting a lack of accessibility and representation. Thus, ASCO served as a rallying point for innovating ways to extend clinical trials to more individuals, with the potential use of technology for virtual enrollment and mobile clinical labs as one suggestion.

These shifts towards patient-centred care, the reduction of operational red tape, and increased accessibility of clinical trials highlighted a more inclusive future for cancer care, a narrative that will continue to generate media attention in the pharma industry.

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