The Medical Science Liaison (MSL) role has become one of the most important customer focused roles within the pharmaceutical/biotech industry and this has led to a massive increase in the MSL work force globally. As a consequence, the supply of aspirant MSLs has increased as well, and companies are rising the MSL entry bar and many are now demanding a terminal degree as a minimum. The biggest challenge for many aspirant MSLs and even people in the pharmaceutical/biotech industry is to fully comprehend what an MSL does on a day to day basis.
The MSL has a strong scientific and/or clinical background and is the disease and drug expert within the medical (affairs) department of the pharmaceutical/biotech company. The MSL focusses on one to several diseases often grouped within the same disease area (i.e. oncology, hematology, auto-immune disease). Because of the MSL’s strong scientific and clinical knowledge, the MSL is the first point of contact to answer any complex questions from the internal stakeholders (their colleagues). This could be about: the mode of action of the drugs; disease related questions; the treatment decisions clinicians make and what drugs to use and when; the patient journey on how patients get diagnosed and treated; management of adverse events and questions about clinical trials from the company (and the competitors). This means that the MSL must be up-to-date on the latest literature and reading, presenting and discussing clinical topics is something an MSL needs to enjoy.
The MSL works at the interface between the internal stakeholders and the external stakeholders in the field – called Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). KOLs – broadly defined as the clinical leaders in their disease area – can be heads of departments at teaching hospitals, heads of pharmacies, professors of medicine, the CEO of a patient organization, physicians involved in pharmaceutical clinical trials and sometimes clinical scientists. In short, MSLs work with many influential stakeholders in a disease area and must therefore be excellent communicators.
Many MSLs work in the pre-approval stage of the drug – i.e. the drug is not allowed to be sold yet. Therefore, MSLs are oftentimes closely involved in clinical trials and work with the KOLs who are involved in these clinical trials and using the drug often for the first time. The hope is that these new drugs will do better/have less side effect/ or are more convenient than the so-called standard of care treatment. Many MSL also have drugs in their portfolio that are already on the market and a sales team is present to sell the drug. Further clinical development might (not) be ongoing, and the role substantially changes compared to when you are working on a pipeline drug.
What does an MSL discuss with the KOLs? An MSL will mostly use clinical papers and international conference material to share with their KOLs. During those meetings, the MSL includes important questions from the internal stakeholder. These questions could be around: the future clinical development of the drug (in new indications); registration of the drug; reimbursement of the drug; gaps in medical education of the general clinicians on the disease/your drug; companion diagnostics for your drug; and competitive (dis)advantages of your drugs, to just name a few. The MSL then brings these crucial insights to the internal stakeholders that will help them form the best strategy to make this drug a clinical success for the patient, the treating doctor and the company.
Having a strong scientific and/or clinical background and strong personal and communication skills is therefore essential for an MSL. Because of the highly scientific and clinical nature of the MSL job – without you having to directly sell anything – the MSL role has become THE job of choice for many scientifically and clinically trained people such as pharmacist/MSc/PhDs/PharmDs and MDs. The combination of being a disease expert, reading clinical papers, discussing the science with top clinicians in the field, having that autonomy in your role and being able to travel a bit (across the globe to international conferences) was for me the ideal science job outside academia, while at the same time being able to influence how patients are being treated and will be treated in the future with the most innovative new drugs (soon to be) on the market.
Dr Martijn Bijker, PhD MSc
Founder of “from SCIENCE to PHARMA” – the most comprehensive global online Medical Science Liaison (MSL) training platform; helping Bachelors, Masters, PhDs, MDs, and PharmDs to maximize their chances of becoming an MSL.