How Immuno-Oncology Biomarkers Are Changing Cancer Care

May 1, 2019

With so many new immunotherapy treatments on the horizon, pharmacists need to understand the ins and outs of immuno-oncology biomarkers to best serve their patients.

The development of new immunology treatments for cancer has transformed the oncology landscape-and, more and more, oncologists are relying on clinical grade biomarkers to guide their selection of these treatments for individual patients.

Matthew Farber, Senior Director of Patient Care and Advocacy at Walgreen Co., said it is critical that pharmacists stay informed about the latest treatments and their associated biomarkers in order to best serve their patient communities.

To do so, he and Lisa Davis, PharmD, from the University of Arizona, co-presented a continuing education session at the 2019 Asembia Specialty Pharmacy Summit, held in Las Vegas, Nevada, entitled, “Immuno-Oncology Biomarkers to Guide Treatment Decision Making: Managed Care and Specialty Pharmacist Perspectives.”

Farber said with so many therapies being approved everyday-and so many of them tied to a specific biomarker or genetic profile-it can be hard for pharmacists to keep up. Yet, it is vital they do so.

“With these additional options, patients may experience different side effects and drug interactions that pharmacists need to help manage and track,” he said. “And, given the complex biomarker testing landscape and related coverage of these medicines and tests, it behooves pharmacists to be aware of labels and indications so they can better help patients navigate the insurance and coverage landscape.”

Farber and Davis discussed how oncologists are currently using such immuno-oncology biomarkers to help make more informed treatment decisions for patients. Farber said it’s clear that these agents are providing important information about potential outcomes-and may even offer physicians tools to help improve them. Yet, despite so many recent approvals, it’s unclear how, where, when, and why they will be used in clinical practice.

More from the Summit: Understanding Both Sides of the Copay Accumulator Debate

“These biomarkers can help determine if the right course of treatment is being administered at the right time for the right patient,” he explained. “However, with insurance companies still determining how they will cover biomarker tests, taking into consider how these tests can improve outcomes and save money is important as it could impact access to certain biomarker tests and related medications.”

As pharmacists are a vital part of the cancer care team, they can play a pivotal role in consulting with oncologists-ensuring patients are being tested for immune biomarkers as well as helping them understand the unique side effects that patients may experience. They can also provide important information that can help payer organizations with formulary management.

“With the increase use of these immunotherapy agents, pharmacists will help patients and physicians gain access to these treatments by conducting drug interaction reviews, helping with side effect management and facilitating with financial assistance needs,” Farber said. “Insurance companies are still evaluating how they will cover biomarker tests, so taking into consideration things like data that demonstrate their ability to improve value and outcomes is also important.”

Farber concluded that pharmacists have a unique role to play in helping patients, providers, and payer organizations understand and navigate this rapidly evolving landscape-and can be a driving force in helping to improve patient outcomes.

“Immuno-oncology is an evolving area of medicine with new biomarker tests and new treatments becoming available on a regular basis,” he said. “Pharmacists should familiarize themselves with this area of oncology treatment and be prepared to play a growing role in expanding overall patient access to these treatments.”

Kayt Sukel is a science and health writer based outside Houston.