Health Careers on the Rise: Medical Science Liaisons at Cannabis Companies

According to the Medical Science Liaison Society (MSL Society), a medical science liaison (MSL) is a specific role within a pharmaceutical, biotech, or other healthcare organization. With their advanced scientific training, an MSL will concentrate on a specific therapeutic area and/or disease state. MSLs then work throughout a product’s lifecycle to ensure that the product is used effectively, acting as a bridge between the corporate and medical worlds. They are often charged with maintaining relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs) at major academic institutions and clinics.

“Medical science liaisons are vital to the success of a company even during these unprecedented times,” says Dr. Samuel Dyer, CEO and Chairman of the Board for the MSL Society. “According to a survey that included 475 KOLs across 21 specialties in the US, 61 percent of KOLs reported that even during the COVID-19 pandemic, their engagements with MSLs are very or somewhat valuable.”

The responsibilities of an MSL will vary based on therapeutic focus, geographical location, company type, and the current stage of a product’s life cycle. Typically, the responsibilities will be categorized into three areas: engaging external stakeholders, collaborating with internal stakeholders, and maintaining their own scientific expertise. Some of the most common tasks for MSLs are attending conferences, educating other healthcare professionals, delivering presentations, and training and supporting their company’s sales force.

Many companies use alternative titles, but the roles are generally equivalent in responsibility. Other titles for MSLs include medical liaisons, medical managers, regional scientific managers, clinical liaisons, and scientific affairs managers. While the educational standards have changed over the years for the MSL role, today it’s considered ideal to have a doctoral degree (either a PharmD or PhD).

“Today having a doctorate degree is the educational standard in the industry for the MSL role,” Dr. Dyer says. “In fact, according to the 2019 MSL Society Salary & Compensation Survey, which included 1,987 MSL professionals, 91 percent of newly hired MSLs in the US have a doctoral degree.”

The educational demands are high for MSLs, but so are the rewards: according to the 2019 MSL Salary & Compensation Survey conducted by the MSL Society, the average salary for an MSL based in the U.S. is over $167,000 per year. Also, a separate 2020 MSL Society global survey found that 68 percent of MSL managers plan to expand the size of their MSL departments.

This is a lucrative and fast-growing profession—and it has an integral role to play in adding value for a rising wave of new pharmaceutical companies.

Meet the Experts

Steeve Néron

Tetra Bio-Pharma

Steeve Néron is the Chief Operating Officer of Tetra Bio-Pharma. He has more than three decades of experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Challenging the reimbursement landscape has factored prominently in his roles, and he has demonstrated success in numerous therapeutic sectors such as cardiology, rheumatology, endocrinology, women’s health, asthma/COPD, OTC, and dermatology.

Prior to joining Tetra Bio-Pharma, Néron occupied a senior marketing position at Bausch Health Canada. He has held various marketing, sales, finance, material management, and business development positions, and has worked to launch or rejuvenate numerous market-leading pharmaceutical brands.

Samuel Dyer, PhD

Medical Science Liaison Society

Dr. Samuel Dyer is the CEO of the Medical Science Liaison Society, which is the first and only global 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to the MSL career. He has over 20 years of international MSL experience. During his career, he has managed MSL teams and operations in over 60 countries. He has written extensively on the MSL role, including numerous published articles, benchmark studies, and reports. He has also been a speaker at numerous global conferences.

Dr. Dyer has been sought out as a consultant for a number of pharmaceutical and management consulting companies on MSL projects. He holds a PhD in health sciences and did his medical training in Chicago. He also completed a certificate program in executive leadership and strategy in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology at the Harvard Business School. Dr. Dyer is the author of the Amazon #1 Best Seller The Medical Science Liaison Career Guide: How to Break into Your First Role. The book is the first step-by-step guide on how to break into the MSL career.

Two Trends Collide: Medical Science Liaisons and Cannabis

The increase in MSLs is on course to collide with another trend: the boom of the cannabis industry. So far, 33 states have legalized medicinal cannabis, and ten of those have permitted recreational use. It’s been called the Green Rush, and with good reason: legal cannabis has added over 210,000 full-time jobs to the American economy. According to Leafly’s 2019 Cannabis Jobs Count, more than 64,000 of those jobs were added in 2018 alone.

Most cannabis-related jobs currently support the sale of recreational or medicinal cannabis, but the next wave of cannabis-related jobs could come from the more professional, and more lucrative, pharmaceutical industry. That’s where cannabinoid-derived drugs and treatments are being explored, developed, and tested at the highest standards.

Cannabis has been used in medical treatments for over 6,000 years, but research in the modern age has been stunted by the drug’s Schedule I status in the US. As cannabis has pushed further into the mainstream, however, pharmaceutical companies are intensifying their interest—and their abundant resources—in the sector. There are currently close to 400 active and completed clinical trials related to cannabidiol (CBD) across the world, with studies suggesting it can be used to treat epilepsy, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, migraines, arthritis, and the side effects of cancer.

But since cannabinoids are relative newcomers to the world of mainstream medicine, a tremendous amount of research and education still needs to take place. That’s where medical science liaisons come into the picture.

The Role of Medical Science Liaisons in Cannabis Pharmaceutical Companies

Consider Tetra Bio-Pharma, a global leader in cannabinoid-derived drug discovery and development. The company specializes in combining traditional methods of medicinal cannabis use with the supporting scientific validation and safety data required for the biopharma industry by regulators, physicians, and insurance companies. Bridging that gap requires medical science liaisons (MSLs).

“We’re planning to hire three MSLs soon, and they will report to me directly,” says Steeve Néron, Chief Operating Officer of Tetra Bio-Pharma. “The nature of the MSL position will be, first, to establish the role in advanced cancer pain for cannabis.”

Tetra Bio-Pharma has several treatments in development. CAUMZ, a synthetic, inhaled, cannabinoid pain relief drug, is about to enter phase three clinical trials. QIXLEEF, a botanical-based inhaled cannabinoid medicine, is about to enter phase two clinical trials. As Tetra continues its march towards FDA-approval, it has the chance to break into the global drug market for pain management, which Allied Market Research projects will reach $130 billion by 2023. MSLs will have a significant role to play in educating doctors on the benefits and proper usage of Tetra’s new forms of treatment.

“Basically, the MSLs will educate doctors on our new therapeutic options,” Néron says. “They’ll do that probably six months prior to the launch, making sure they understand from A to Z all the supporting evidence. In the case of CAUMZ and QIZLEEF, we’ll have a formal data pack made of preclinical, phase one, phase two, and eventually phase three results.”

Cannabis-related treatments still face stigma from some doctors and regulators. But as the opioid epidemic rages in the US, demand for less addictive alternatives is increasing. MSLs at Tetra and other cannabinoid-based pharmaceutical companies face the challenge of educating an at-times non-receptive audience. Their responsibilities and standards, however, will be the same as they would be at any other pharmaceutical company.

“I used to be MSL director at Merck in Canada,” Néron says. “Here, it will be exactly the same. We’re going to use the Big Pharma standard of performance. We’ll have proper pharmacovigilance in place.”

Tetra’s MSLs will have strong academic backgrounds: preferably a PhD with a background in the central nervous system (CNS). And when Tetra looks to sign a deal with any strategic partners in the US, they’ll require that the partner have MSLs in place who can answer tough, scientific, compliance-related questions with expertise and authority. MSLs are a sign of competence, maturity, and ethical practice within the industry.

At the moment, cannabis-based pharmaceutical companies like Tetra can’t afford to compensate MSLs to the same extent that behemoths like Merck and Pfizer can. But they can offer stock options, which, given the direction of the cannabis industry, could end up being extremely lucrative. Just how lucrative they turn out to be is at least partially in the hands of this next generation of medical science liaisons.

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He’s been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt’s writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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