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Johnson & Johnson VP of US Oncology Medical Affairs on Working at the Nexus of Medical Innovation

For the fifth episode in the Sorcero podcast, Dipanwita Das sits down with Johnson & Johnson VP of US Oncology Medical Affairs Luca Dezzani, M.D.. The conversation centers on the idea that medical affairs is really at the nexus of medical innovation right now; medical affairs professionals are forging key partnerships with stakeholders in tech and medicine, directly impacting the care of medical patients in critical fields like cancer treatment — which is Luca’s area of focus.

Luca explains why he made the shift, initially, from oncology to medical affairs. He also explains why life sciences organizations are becoming platforms, rather than simply deliverers of pills. And finally, he speaks to what product people need to know about working with medical affairs: namely, partnership is key.

On the unique opportunity of working in medical affairs

Medical affairs professionals play a key role in healthcare. At a time when life sciences technology is advancing rapidly, medical affairs is at the confluence of technological data coming in and medical information that needs to go out to patients and stakeholders.

As Luca puts it, “Medical affairs, and medical affairs professionals in general, have a unique opportunity to really be at the center of the healthcare ecosystem. If you think about it, medical affairs, whether you are in the field or working in home office capacity, you do engage with top opinion leaders in the particular therapeutic area you cover. But you also engage with medical societies, with patient advocacy groups, with payers, and with policymakers. 

“And then internally … within the pharmaceutical company, you engage with other players in developing new medicines for patients, such as research and development. Or clinical development, commercial sales, market access. So if you are a medical affairs professional, you really feel that you are somehow the glue, or definitely at the center of this entire ecosystem that is striving for making a dent — in my case, in cancer care.”

On the shift from pills to platforms for life sciences organizations

In the past, life sciences companies tended to focus on research and development of specific medications or pills, and getting those into the hands of doctors treating patients with matching ailments. Now, the work of these organizations is much more comprehensive — and often focused on prevention. 

Luca explains, “We don't have to have patients to actually treat their cancer, in our case. We can start much earlier with early detection [and] screening. So we can actually act on society at large and on people that may not be patients yet so that we prevent them from becoming patients in the future. So that's a very easy example of how platforms work. That also captures the kind of diagnostic component, the screening and precision medicine component….

“The next big thing is very much the precision medicine piece. The idea that we then do have a much clearer understanding, from a biological standpoint, of the cancer or the disease patients have. And we can be much more targeted in addressing that particular mutation or targeting that particular alteration that is causing or driving cancer."

Ecosystem of care 

“Moving into the more advanced stages, in my case in cancer, there you have an entire ecosystem that is actually touching patients one way or the other. You obviously have the healthcare providers. That's an easy one. Then you have manufacturers, like pharmaceutical companies. But then you have other stakeholders. You have, obviously, the payers, and they play a key role in giving access to medicines to patients. You have policymakers. And then you have the entire ecosystem of people that help patients. As I mentioned earlier, patient advocacy groups. You have caregivers.

“Bottom line: the idea is, it used to be, in the past, a one-on-one relationship between the patient and the doctor. And to a certain extent, that's still the case. And you had manufacturers and other players providing the ingredients to that relationship. Now it's becoming much more of a seamless integration of different stakeholders across the entire ecosystem. So that's why we are now focusing more on platforms of care, rather than point of care, or just bringing a pill … to a patient.”

On why partnership is key to building life sciences products

Most medical affairs professionals have a background in medical science, not technology. Thus, when it comes to finding the right product solution or new technology, collaboration and partnership are paramount.

Luca says, “We need to acknowledge what we know and what we don't know. We … are not IT experts. We are not technology experts, and we need to partner with people who are experts in those fields. So to me, this whole concept of finding the right partner for your journey is key. [And] if you think of the other way around, that's also the case. When you speak with technology people, obviously they do understand technology deeply. But they may not necessarily understand life sciences as we do. So that's the real definition of partnership and potentially synergy. 

“Probably even before looking at what particular solution or … technology that vendor is working on, the most important thing I'm really looking at is the mindset. Can I see myself working with this group, in partnership? And growing together? Can I see us building this solution together, so that we will both learn and we will both get something out of this out of this journey?... 

“And of course, then, it needs to be robust technology. And all the other more specific areas that you tend to evaluate as you choose your right partner. But again, to me, the most important thing is very much this mindset of, let's figure it out together. Let's work together, grow together. Let's make it happen together.”