Software has been a part of drug design for decades, but digital technologies are now being used in the pharmaceutical industry in many other ways. Some of these applications were highlighted this week at INVEST PharmaTech, a virtual event hosted by MedCity News.
Drug discovery featured in some of the discussion, including during a panel on how artificial intelligence is being used for drug discovery. Other sessions delved into the future of digital medicines, how Covid-19 has changed clinical trials, and the ways big pharma and digital startups can work together. Here are some highlights from the event.
Big Pharma is starting to embrace digital change
Big pharma resists change by design, said Jessica Federer, partner at Boston Millenia Partners and former chief digital officer at Bayer. Pharmaceutical companies move a molecule from discovery in the lab to pills in medicine cabinets over a 10-year period, a process that requires stability, Federer explained. Conversely, startups thrive on change, which is necessary for their survival, she said.
Sharon Hanlon, head of clinical trial engagement and enrollment at Bristol Myers Squibb, acknowledged that big pharma is slow to change. But companies are more open to change now, and Hanlon’s attributes shifting in part to Covid-19. Both decentralized clinical trials and diversity efforts have increased during the pandemic, and each effort can learn from the other. That’s because they both share the goal of reaching more people and improving the ability to participate in clinical trials, Hanlon explained.
Pharmaceutical companies understand the promise of digital health, said Jim Parshall, senior director of external innovation for health and connected devices at Eli Lilly. But the scope and role of digital technologies varies from company to company. “Those with promising portfolios and pipelines may be the least interested in exploring digital health options,” he said. “Those who are close to death are more likely to do so.”
Patients are at the center of the digital shift
Josh Rose, vice president and global head of decentralized clinical trials at CVS Clinical Trials Services, highlighted the ways in which industries such as consumer electronics and retail have found ways to facilitate consumer engagement. . Decentralized clinical testing technologies offer companies conducting such trials a similar approach, Rose said.
“One thing that has changed with decentralized clinical trials, we can really start to elevate how we think about the patient first as a way to have clinical research,” he said.
Whatever the application, the technology must be usable, Rose said. Usability extends to the clinical trial site as well as the patient. Expect to see more combination products – hybrids of drugs and medical devices. Pierre Laurent, president of Aptar Pharma, digital health, said these products will bring together molecules, software and hardware under the same umbrella. Lana Ghanem, chief executive of Hikma Ventures, said she was interested in a small transdermal patch to monitor blood sugar and other biomarkers. Being able to continuously monitor multiple biomarkers painlessly would be revolutionary, she said.
“For me, it’s the future,” Ghanem said. “We’re not too far away. We’re not too close either.
The technology is paving the way for new kinds of personalized medicines, said Richard Law, chief commercial officer of Exscientia, a company that uses AI to discover and develop new medicines. AI reveals who are the best patients for potential drugs. This ability can help combat heterogeneity, that is, a single disease with multiple causes that vary from patient to patient. If AI can help guide scientists towards designing a drug for a particular disease cause, the future should be one of a huge abundance of drugs, each of them for the right patients, a Law said.
Putting big pharma and startups on the same page
When evaluating potential partnerships with startups, Lilly’s Parshall said the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant looks for strong products or services that have supporting data and a clear regulatory path. Lilly also seeks cultural fit. In some cases, vendors or payers may be more appropriate partners for a startup. But generally, Lilly’s partnerships stem from relationships, Parshall said.
Charles Fisher, founder and CEO of clinical trial technology startup Unlearn, said building a partnership starts with connecting with the right person at a big pharma company. This person should be someone the startup gets along with and who shares the startup’s vision. More than just championing a startup’s technology, Fisher said that person must also have enough stature in the company to influence decisions.
Finding the right connection at a big pharma takes a lot of trial and error, and while that might mean hearing “no” often, it’s also important for startups to say it, Fisher said. He offered the story of a Girl Scout cookie-selling champion as an example. Asked about her secret for selling so many cookies, she replied that she only tried to sell to those who wanted them. The lesson is not to sell what you don’t have. If a big pharma asks for something you can’t provide, say “no,” Fisher said.
“Being able to say ‘no’ is key to finding the right people because someone will say ‘yes,'” said Fisher, whose startup landed a partnership with Merck KGaA earlier this year.
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