An estimated 33,000 people walked the halls of the European Society for Medical Oncology’s (ESMO) 2023 gathering.

The event – which has a reputation for being the most influential oncology congress – is used by many pharma companies as a platform for major announcements and clinical trial results, as the media attention is almost guaranteed.

So what stood out this year? To find out, we analysed 376 English-language articles published this month. Here’s what we found:

1. Lung cancer was the main focus again

Just like at last year’s ESMO, lung cancer emerged as the most widely discussed cancer type.

But unlike last year, when a new study linking pollution with lung cancer in non-smokers generated buzz in mainstream media, this time lung cancer was more of a focus for specialised trade media.

A particularly important narrative was the movement upstream of drugs that are established as advanced disease therapies to the adjuvant – or post-surgery – inspired by the success of AstraZeneca’s landmark 2020 ADAURA study.

At this year’s ESMO, the success of ADAURA was echoed by what was described by many outlets as “unprecedented” progression-free survival (PFS) data for Roche’s Alecensa in adjuvant anaplastic non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Many journalists framed the results as compelling enough to change treatment practice for this subset of lung cancer patients.  

Lung cancer news was also what made AstraZeneca the most influential organisation, just like last year:

But unlike last year, when AstraZeneca attracted media interest with its aspiration to be the fastest-growing maker of cancer drugs, it was now featured in many media publications with some rather disappointing news – a data abstract on its experimental precision drug, datopotamab deruxtecan, developed together with Daiichi Sankyo, dissatisfied analysts in a late-stage lung cancer trial, causing the company’s shares to fall more than 4%.

In addition, Johnson & Johnson presented data showing its combination therapy outperformed AstraZeneca’s Tagrisso in a study enrolling patients with a certain type of lung cancer, escalating competition between the two companies.

2. Antibody-drug conjugates emerged as a new frontier

Perhaps the real message from this year’s congress, according to many reporters, was the potential future role of antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) plus immunotherapy combinations. In this regard, the multi-billion dollar ADC collaboration announced by Merck and Daiichi Sankyo was the focus of many ESMO reports.

Another major headline-grabbing story was Seagen (now merging with Pfizer) and Astellas’ antibody-drug conjugate Padcev plus Merck’s Keytruda in previously untreated bladder cancer patients. Seagen heralded the results, which showed the combo reduced the risk of death by 53% compared to chemo, as “practice changing.”

According to many commentators, the field is likely to advance rapidly, with promising Phase Ib/II data also presented at ESMO for the combination of Daiichi and AstraZeneca’s datopotamab deruxtecan and the UK drugmaker’s Imfinzi in first-line advanced triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).

3. Keytruda was everywhere

A notable observation at any major oncology meeting in recent memory is the omnipresence of Merck’s Keytruda as a cornerstone therapeutic across a majority of cancer types, either as monotherapy or increasingly in combination with other treatments. 

Like last year, Keytruda was again the most influential therapy in the debate:

In addition to being a lead actor at ESMO’s clinical presentations, many outlets noted that Keytruda appears integral to Daiichi choosing Merck as its next ADC partner, not only from a clinical perspective in terms of potential future treatment combinations (though that must be considered important), but the expertise Keytruda’s success over the past decade has provided Merck. 

4. Biggest cervical cancer drug advance in 20 years was hailed

ESMO heralded a major advancement in cervical cancer treatment, showcasing a new regimen of existing, cost-effective drugs administered before standard radiotherapy, reducing mortality risk by 35%.

The breakthrough was seen as the biggest in two decades and attracted substantial media attention, making lead scientist Mary McCormack the most influential spokesperson in the ESMO debate:

McCormack was cited as saying that what makes the study exciting is that if patients are alive and well, without the cancer recurring at five years, then they are very likely to be cured.

5. Breast cancer got a sustainability narrative

A study unveiled at the event highlighted the significant association between long-term exposure to fine particle air pollution, both residential and workplace, and the risk of breast cancer.

Following these findings, and in alignment with earlier proposals from the European Commission to reduce fine particle-particle limits, ESMO advocated for a further reduction, echoing the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.

For many, this narrative at ESMO not only highlighted the interconnection between environmental sustainability and breast cancer risk but also set a precedent for global health and environmental policy integration.

Why media analytics is vital for event PR

Major industry events like ESMO tend to generate a significant amount of media coverage. In this context, media analytics solutions are essential for PR and communications for at least three reasons:

  • Evaluating Organisational and Spokesperson Performance: Shows like ESMO are prime opportunities for organisations to unveil clinical trial results and new solutions. Media analytics could provide granular insights into how these announcements perform in the media landscape, including how pharma companies’ products are framed, how they compare to competitors, and how the reach and penetration of strategic messages vary across different markets and media formats. Stakeholder mapping can also show where and how the company’s spokespeople were quoted, allowing for a comprehensive evaluation of your thought leadership strategy.
  • Preparing for Upcoming Events: Thematic and message analysis offers crucial insights into the kinds of campaigns and messages that garner the most engagement. This enables PR and communications professionals to tailor future initiatives towards strategies that connect with their intended audience, optimising media ROI in the process. Moreover, by studying the successful approaches of competitors, teams can gain guidance on how to craft effective tactics for future events.
  • Feeling the Industry’s Pulse: Major trade shows offer a snapshot of the current state of the industry, so it’s important to identify emerging trends and topics that are gaining traction. This information is crucial for understanding if there’s a media “white space” — untapped topics or narratives — that your organisation can occupy with its strategic positioning.

Discover how Commetric’s AI-driven and human-curated media analytics can equip your organisation with a best-in-class event comms plan.

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