Please login to the form below

Not currently logged in

A quest for innovative solutions

UCB looks to the future through a PRISM

Erik Janssen

The heavy chains of lengthy drug development have anchored many promising treatments to the murky depths of R&D limbo, but UCB believes it is on the path to a buoyant future by harnessing technology.

It has broken out from its traditional pathways - where getting a drug to market costs a standard £1.15bn - to partner with a host of start-ups and new-breed companies pursuing innovative, tech-driven therapies.

Like many of the big pharmaceutical players, UCB is riding out from its well-appointed laboratories and gleaming head office corrals to prospect for pharma gold.

UCB, which focuses on severe diseases of the immune or central nervous system, started tentatively with approaches to 15 small technology firms, but over the last two years has stretched that to more than 300 with the creation of PRISM (Patient Relevant Innovative Solutions Mission) which seeks out the nuggets of therapeutic value and delivery innovation.

It is this quest for technology that can help patients with epilepsy and Parkinson’s, the sweet spots in its global operation that saw total revenue grow to €4.2bn in 2016, up from €3.6bn in 2015.


“I have the most beautiful job in the company because my team and I are exposed to the change externally,” says Erik Janssen, UCB’s head of innovative solutions, Neurology Patient Value Unit.

“We have huge support to translate that change for both others in the organisation and for patients with epilepsy and Parkinson’s.

“Our core DNA will always be to research new and better drugs but we can partner with other players, who have complementary technologies, to do something together. It is now an ecosystem play - the time for one company to do everything itself is over.

“Digital technology is transforming everything, including healthcare. We still see a lot of unsolved challenges for people living with epilepsy and need to ask if the science, which we do well, can merge with the technology to create an even bigger impact. But we are not looking at technology for technology’s sake; there has to be a distinct patient benefit.”

PRISM has matured into an artery of new opportunities such as its collaboration on RADAR-CNS (Remote Assessment of Disease and Relapse - Central Nervous System), an initiative that aims to develop new ways of monitoring major depressive order, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis using wearable devices and smartphone technology. Its key goal is to improve patients’ symptoms and their quality of life, and to change how these and other chronic disorders are treated.

Increase returns

UCB is one of the partners in a consortium that includes other EFPIA companies, universities, research organisations, public bodies, non-profit groups and other third parties.

The innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), with €5.3bn invested in 90 projects, is a barometer of the industry’s deep dive into technology at a time when ageing populations with multiple co-morbidities are challenging medical science and economic tolerability.

The report from analysts Deloitte in December last year, A New Future for R&D?, highlighted diminishing revenue returns from traditional drug development models but stated: ‘We see opportunities for biopharma to increase returns in the coming years if the industry embraces advanced technologies that can impact R&D across the entire value chain.

‘Artificial intelligence, real-world evidence and robotic and cognitive automation, to name a few, have the potential to improve study design, physician and patient recruitment and in-trial decision-making, as well as increase efficiency and accuracy in repetitive tasks all the way through to regulatory filing.’

The report added that applying technology’s ability to connect and monitor ‘could lead to a vibrant and sustainable biopharma industry focused on high value outcomes - an objective that is vital to the future of global public health’.

The imperative to look outside traditional tramlines of development was emphasised by the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries predic-tion that there was little chance of the expensive and lengthy model being short-circuited any time soon. The private sector would spend $1tn in R&D over the next six years ‘with many projects likely to fail’, it cautioned.

Sign posts

The search for novel ways of working has rapidly been prioritised from an annual ‘think tank’ discussion point to a regular agenda-topping imperative at most pharma companies, and Janssen adds: “We spend a lot of time asking how we, as an organisation, can prepare for this future because it is happening right now. We want to do more than just bring drugs to patients so that means looking into unique outcomes such as using technologies to understand diseases much better and creating better experiences for patients.

“We are also looking into how we do this at an affordable cost and we believe it can be done without exploding the budget. We believe that if we take the approach of really solving the problems patients experience around their treatment and ensuring they get the best treatment then we will win in the end.

“It is about going beyond that traditional model. We did struggle with defining the value at the beginning but we can see the potential for and from transformation. Take epilepsy, for instance, where 20% of patients are being misdiagnosed, which is substantial. If technology can create better diagnosis and accelerate routes to treatment, then there is a huge positive impact all round.”

Technology’s attractive calling card is the monitoring and collection of data that can generate insights into patient behaviour and signpost ways for more applied drug development and better delivery systems.

The PRISM initiative includes an investment in BlueHealth - an Antwerp-based incubator for digital healthcare start-up - where UCB is the only industry partner for movement in the project.

It has also partnered with US firm Great Lakes NeuroTech to develop wearables and other tech tools to measure and monitor motor function in Parkinson’s patients, a critical indicator of disease progression.

“There are some really exciting projects out there and we are also partnering with academic institutions to use and share knowledge,” adds Janssen. “We have set up a number of pilots and projects and the crucial landmarks will be demonstrating that technology can help and improve outcomes for patients, and establishing the clinical validation.

“It is important that patients can see the value in tracking their disease. Once that is established you can generate data and learn so much about patients and patient populations. We are already generating insights that will allow us to invent and develop new and better drugs for these patients.

“PRISM has been going for almost two years and it has been a fascinating journey because at the start we didn’t know what was happening externally. We could see that technology was changing other industries and we wanted to see if it could change outcomes for our patients.

“The biggest surprise was how much was out there and then the willingness to collaborate and share - technology companies are driven by that while pharma companies have less experience at it. Working in an ecosystem and not in isolation has given us a new perspective on how to drive open innovation.

“I’m really confident that the future looks bright for people living with severe diseases. I believe there will be transformational value from the combination of drugs and technologies that will be seen in the next five to ten years.”

Article by
Danny Buckland

is a health journalist

22nd February 2018

Article by
Danny Buckland

is a health journalist

22nd February 2018

From: Regulatory



Career advice

No results were found

Subscribe to our email news alerts


Add my company
dna Communications

Because health means everything...