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Nerve centre gives Novartis edge in clinical trials

Algorithms predict potential delays

sense novartis

Novartis' new nerve centre, the Sense tower, is a leap forward in managing clinical trials worldwide

The world’s biggest pharma companies are all in pursuit of a ‘digital transformation’ in their businesses, with the aim of using new technology and data to streamline operations, cut costs and make better decisions.

Novartis’ CEO Vas Narasimhan has proclaimed that he wants the company to be a leader in the field, and to be driven by data and digital tech as much as medical science.

While there's lots of talk in the sector about this digital revolution, Novartis is keen to demonstrate its progress so far, and ahead of today’s full year results conference at its HQ in Basel, Switzerland, it showcased some of its advances to the media.

One of its most eye-catching is the new digitally-enabled nerve centre on its Basel campus, which allows the company to monitor its worldwide clinical trials in real time, a first for the industry.

The company is pleased with the progress with the Nerve Live digital platform since it was launched in April 2018, with the Sense tower aka ‘the Bridge’ control centre going live in December.

The centre helps Novartis monitor all of its 500 ongoing clinical trials at thousands of sites around the world and anticipate any problems or hold-ups which could cause expensive delays.

This is unquestionably a leap forward in terms of monitoring clinical trials – the most costly part of developing a drug – as pharma companies currently have limited ability to keep tabs on trial programmes spread over many sites in countries around the world.

The system has been set up by data scientists and clinical trial leaders in the company, who say it puts Novartis at the forefront of the necessary digital revolution in drug development.

Badhri Srinivasan Head, Global Development Operations, Novartis says: “It changes the way we conduct our business and how [our teams] interact because suddenly access to information is instant.”

One of the most exciting innovations is the use of predictive algorithms, which can pick out likely problems far in advance.

“It's like your GPS system: you're driving along and the system tells you there's a traffic jam ahead.  The predictive algorithms allow you to see maybe 12 months, 18 months, 20 months down the road, how things will materialise. By knowing that, I can of course correct it today, so that traffic jam never happens.”

Srinivasan wouldn’t be drawn on the scale of improvements in clinical trial timelines and costs the system could generate. However, he said the team were confident of surpassing average industry performance – this commonly includes 20% of open sites not enrolling any patients, with around half of all trials delayed due to recruitment issues.

The Novartis team drew on experience in the aviation sector in monitoring flights and from a similar control centre operated by Swiss Power, the country’s electricity national grid operator. Novartis has adopted Swiss Power's simple traffic lights warning system to make it easy to spot when problems arise, allowing them to act and help trials get back onto 'green'.

Dr. Luca Finelli leads the Predictive Analytics & Design group within Global Drug Development. He says the concept was first proposed in Novartis 3-4 years ago when tech companies were moving into healthcare data projects. “When Google was buying DeepMind…we asked ourselves what we were doing in this field?”

Dr. Finelli says the company came to a realisation that its systems were simply not making the most of its data. The company can now call on a single database of past clinical trials encompassing 2 million patient years. He says this allows analysis to generate new insights that were very difficult to obtain when data was locked away in silos, and to maintain good data quality.

The project has been a major undertaking, not only in the process of ‘cleaning’ and linking all the disparate datasets into one 'data lake’ but also bringing different internal teams together and to break away from established practices.

Dr Finelli says that, as with many major corporate projects, getting the idea off the ground was hard work, and its future looked touch and go in its first year or two. He says it helped that Vas Narasimhan was head of drug development before taking over as CEO early last year, and is championing digital transformation across the company.

“The use of digital can be felt most when it lets people spent their time and energy on things that matter most," says Dr Finelli. "Our common purpose is to bring better medicines to patients fast and now we can all collaborate and work completely different than those old information silos.”

Article by
Andrew McConaghie

30th January 2019

From: Research

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