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Digital disruption

How pharma is keeping up with the pace of change


The lightning strikes of digital disruption should be seen as flashes of inspiration that will illuminate - and, yes, change too - the way the pharmaceutical industry operates.

One of the challenges in digital healthcare is sifting through the volume of noise in the area to separate the true sparks of inspiration from those that fail to ignite.

Writing this in June 2017 it’s instructive to look back over the past 12 months to fully appreciate the rate of change and pick out some of the headlines’ developments.

I’d like to think we can set aside the less-than-groundbreaking news that an EMA committee is currently debating whether QR codes can be included on the side of medicine boxes. Instead it’s the European regulator’s moves to set up a big data taskforce that provide a more apt jumping-off point for a look at the direction of travel.

It’s a road whose signposts point strongly towards data, with the tech firms attending a two-day EMA workshop in November 2016 - among them IBM Watson Health and Google - having already struck significant deals with pharmaceutical companies. From the EMA’s point of view, it wants to look at how big data might support research, innovation and ‘robust’ medicines development, with an 18-month timeline for the taskforce to map out and explore the subject.

For pharma and the IBMs and Googles of the world it’s the combination of large data sets and artificial intelligence that’s enticing, and they’re just two of the tech firms already active in the area.

An intelligent direction

Not quite halfway through 2017 and the year began with Merck KGaA inking a big data partnership with California’s Palantir Technologies that will harness advanced data analytics for better development and commercialisation of products that will ‘achieve better patient outcomes’. Initially focused on cancer, the collaboration aims to provide the German pharma company’s scientists with new understanding of how new medicines work.

R&D, this time within psychiatric and neurological treatments, was in the mind of Lundbeck executives when they signed a drug research deal with IBM Watson Health in February. The Danish firm hopes that adding its drug research know-how to IBM’s ‘cognitive computing’ and analytics will help it develop innovative new medicines. Starting with projects in schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease, Lundbeck and IBM will also work together to identify potential new drug targets and alternative indications.

Clearly these aren’t isolated examples. Pfizer has teamed up with IBM to accelerate its search for immunology treatments, hoping to identify new drug treatments. Commenting on the December 2016 deal Pfizer’s executive vice president for strategy, portfolio and commercial operations Laurie Olson said: “At Pfizer we are entering a new frontier in data innovation in which we are investing in a range of new technologies and digital solutions.”

Joining the UK pharma giant, passport in hand and heading for the data frontier is Teva, which signed a three-year research deal to aim the Watson supercomputer at drug development and chronic disease management, starting with respiratory and central nervous system diseases.

Meanwhile, clearly on a bit of a roll at the moment, the most recent addition to IBM’s client roster was Novartis, which is trying a bit of a different approach. Targeting advanced breast cancer the partners will combine real-world patient data and cognitive computing to ‘optimise cancer care and improve outcomes’. But, reading between the lines of the deal, it would appear to also be aimed at market access, with the work looking at which combinations and sequences of treatments provide the best patient outcomes - information that would probably come in very handy for submissions to the likes of NICE or IQWiG.

AZ and Microsoft

One more of the IT companies joining force with a pharma partner is Microsoft. It’s UK campus makes it a neighbour to AstraZeneca and the two are collaborating on oncology drug discovery. Combining ‘drag and drop’ computer simulations they’re trying to predict the best way to kill cancer cells with drugs that control their function.

The work began when senior Microsoft scientist Jasmin Fisher was invited to speak at AZ’s first Cambridge Cancer Science Symposium in 2014.

“We were aware that Microsoft was getting involved in health and knew about the computer tool Jasmin was developing to model biological processes in cells. When we chatted after her lecture, we realised the potential of using our cancer-signalling data to show what her simulation tool could do,” explains Jonathan Dry, principal scientist and global strategy lead, Bioinformatics, Oncology, Innovative Medicines and Early Development (IMED) at AstraZeneca.

That cloud-based tool, called the BioModel Analyzer (BMA), brings alive the millions of potential changes in cell signalling that make cancer cells multiply uncontrollably. It enables scientists to find ways of using drugs to interrupt the most important signals, more quickly and accurately than previously possible and with less need for so-called ‘wet-lab’ work.

Fisher, who’s also an associate Professor of Systems Biology at Cambridge University, says: “As a biologist myself, I wanted a user-friendly method of investigating the complexity of signalling pathways in a much more systematic way than was possible in the past. So we spent a lot of time and trouble converting heavy computer science into ‘one click’ analysis that would present information in a visual, graphical way for experimental biologists.”

On computer screens, AZ scientists can then ‘drag and drop’ the essential ingredients of the biological processes they are interested in - cells, genes and proteins. Next, they draw in the basic signalling pathways that can go wrong in cancer cells. Then it’s over to computers capable of performing eye-watering calculations to fill in the gaps and predict what happens if different steps are blocked with drugs.

Initially AZ and Microsoft have focused acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), simulating experiments to predict how drug combinations might be used to overcome resistance to drugs that target cell signalling in AML, and how this might vary between cell lines. The work has produced “real preclinical data that can impact the way drugs are developed”, Fisher explains, adding: “It’s genuinely meaningful, not just another piece of ‘blue sky’ research. It’s a super-exciting time!”

The data challenge

A step or two removed from technology companies there’s the process of gathering the real-world data many of them need to feed their computers, with the UK health service at the forefront for much of this work. The NHS has seen an explosion of data that’s generated and captured electronically and those within the Service expect it to continue to proliferate, but there’s a real challenge on the ground when it comes to explaining to the public why they should allow their data to be used for the common good.

“There is a lot to play for”, Merck’s UK national public affairs and policy manager Steven Ferguson tells PME. “The big win is better outcomes, better patient experiences, lower costs, much more investment [into the UK].”

He adds: “Perhaps if they saw that there is just dates and procedure codes and things like that involved in their record, it might not worry them so much. I think people just don’t know what the data even is that they’re talking about - we’re not talking about really personal things that would be compromising.”

But Ferguson acknowledges solving a challenge of this magnitude, which the NHS itself has said it struggles with, should be a collective responsibility, involving industry, the NHS, academia and “anyone that helps to deliver healthcare”.

“There is a value pitch to society in this country to say, ‘here are the things that we’re really finding difficult’, and the only way we can find solutions to those challenges will be for us to look at the data that you guys are all generating every day and every time you touch the NHS.”

It’s an important challenge for stakeholders to accept. As research commissioned by EFPIA concluded, without a ‘sustainable and effective health data ecosystem’, Europe will not be able to make the most of data for either patients or healthcare systems.

Article by
Dominic Tyer

27th June 2017

Article by
Dominic Tyer

27th June 2017

From: Sales



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