Boosting the systems that fight cancer: Meet our oncology experts

A paradox of our time: we’re living longer, healthier lives, but cancer’s impact on them will only increase. It’s the second-largest contributor to the burden of noncommunicable disease. In the global developed world, one person in three receives a cancer diagnosis at some point. An analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum estimated that the number of new cancer cases will rise to 21.5 million by 2030. Diagnosing, treating, and caring for cancer patients requires many complex systems—healthcare, social support, medical research, drug development, even political—to marshal the right resources in the right places.

Ten years ago, London-based partner Dr. Björn Albrecht, a molecular oncologist by training, noticed that he and a group of other consultants with oncology expertise throughout the firm were always on call whenever projects dealing with cancer arose. Rather than continue to serve such clients on a reactive, ad-hoc basis, Björn gathered together these experts, established an advisory board of renowned cancer clinician-scientists, and built a market research and analytics infrastructure—now known as the McKinsey Cancer Center, which bundles the firm’s cancer knowledge and client service.

Our work encompasses everything from helping drug companies discover, develop, and launch better medicines to developing national strategies on how to beat cancer, Björn explains. One of the center’s major assets is its ability to serve across sectors at the local, regional, and national levels. Since the center’s creation, its clients have included top companies doing cutting-edge work in pharma, biotech, and diagnostics; the world’s leading cancer centers; and healthcare systems.

Björn gathered together the oncology experts within the firm, established an advisory board of renowned cancer clinician-scientists, and built an analytics infrastructure to form the center.

Recent examples of the center’s work include building a multibillion-dollar cancer organization from scratch and working with five health systems around the globe to improve colorectal cancer care. This latter project saves 400 lives annually within those health systems, a mortality reduction of 10 percent prior to the interventions.

We serve such a broad set of clients, but what it comes down to is understanding where the burden of the disease resides for each of our stakeholders, says Dr. Laura Furstenthal, a senior partner based in San Francisco and a cancer biologist by training.

This is all accomplished by a core global team of about 30 consultants, each of whom can draw upon a background in science or medicine. Our model is staffing teams with people who are scientists at heart that ‘speak oncology,’ explains Philippe Menu, an associate partner based in Geneva. Some of us are scientists who understand the biology, some of us are physicians who understand what treatments look like and how doctors navigate the system, and many of us have family members who have had cancer. It’s a deeply passionate group of people, Laura adds.

Björn, Laura, and Philippe, like their peers at the center, at one point considered very different careers. Björn had always expected to become a doctor, like his father. Then, in 1989, my dad brought home a research magazine, and it had an article about HIV in it, Björn remembers. The race to find a cure for this virus inspired him to study biology and pursue research on viruses. Many years later, he wrote his PhD dissertation on the science of a virus that causes an aggressive form of leukemia. After deciding that life in the lab wasn’t for him, Björn joined McKinsey in 2003 and jumped into projects that tied into his research.

Laura had a similar urge to get out of the lab, after receiving her PhD in cancer biology from Stanford: Years in the lab, years in trials—I wanted something where I could see faster results. Ironically, her first project at McKinsey had her helping a Nobel laureate whose work she’d written her thesis on but hadn’t been able to meet. Laura jokes, I’ve been part of the Cancer Center since day one. Likewise, Philippe called on his MD–PhD in molecular biology of immunity and cancer for his first project at the firm and has been with the center ever since.

One in three people in the developed world receive a cancer diagnosis in their lives
One in three people in the developed world receive a cancer diagnosis in their lives

In the years since the founding of the McKinsey Cancer Center, cancer treatments have become more advanced and complex as genetic sequencing and computing power have enabled more individualized approaches. Twenty years ago, you had lung cancer. Today, you could say that lung cancer actually doesn’t exist anymore per se; it’s more a collection of different lung-cancer types. We can now segment cancer patients according to their lung-cancer type based on specific biomarkers, and choose more targeted treatments for them accordingly, Philippe explains.

Every year, McKinsey Cancer Center hosts a satellite symposium at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, where 40,000 industry members, scientists, and clinicians spend a week discussing the most recent clinical results and cancer drugs. At the satellite symposium, the center convenes about 150 clients from across the industry to discuss the latest developments.

Last year’s symposium touched on the huge potential that data and data sharing could have for cancer treatment. New treatments, trials, and technologies will generate mountains of data, but if they remain isolated in silos, their true potential for patients will be lost. Take the airline industry—if I want a ticket from San Francisco to Venice, the IATA1 platforms let airlines collaborate to find me the right combination of tickets. That’s the kind of innovation that we need. It’s not going to be one company or one provider that solves the problem, but there will be thousands of combinations of therapies, and no individual doctor is going to be able to understand all of them without support, explains Laura.

Björn is hopeful that new drugs, approaches to care, and ways of collaborating will improve cancer-survival rates. If we could make better-targeted therapies for patients— who will then respond at higher rates, respond longer term, and stay productive in society—that already will be a big step. There are ways to improve care even without any new therapies: We have a tremendous opportunity to improve patient recruitment and the conduct of clinical trials and to align, across and within countries, the quality with which care is delivered. Doing this alone will bring drugs faster to market and improve or even save a significant number of patients’ lives.

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