The digital transformation of the pharmaceutical industry has been accelerated and pushed into the spotlight in the wake of the pandemic. National requirements for people to stay at home, new regulations over working conditions, and the urgent need for innovation to treat and manage the coronavirus has driven a digital revolution. Some even say that the last few months of the pandemic has resulted in the equivalent of ten years’ worth of digital progress for the pharmaceutical industry.
This is reflected in the survey results of Twilio’s study, which found evidence for digital transformation among more than 2500 companies across the pharmaceutical industry and other business sectors. As we will see, this movement is being led by 3D bioprinting, AI, AR, Blockchain and IoT technology.
Traditionally, the discovery and development of new drugs takes an average of ten to fifteen, and the average success rate is only 10%. The combination of these factors contribute to a hefty development cost for each drug; currently standing at $2.6 billion in the States. “AI can crunch data far faster than human researchers”, claims Dr Nick Lynch, an investment lead at the Pistoia Alliance. Finding a faster way to process data is of particular importance now, when the need for new drugs to promote the treatment of Covid-19 and tackle the spread of the pandemic has become a global priority.
In light of this, pharmaceutical interest has spiked around the new AI Drug Discovery platform developed by the healthcare technology developer ‘Aladdin’. This platform has been working to identify the most appropriate drug molecule compounds for treating Covid-19, among other diseases. Impressively, this AI system was the first platform in the world to identify that steroid dexamethasone could be used to relieve Covid-19 symptoms. It has also been helping to identify treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Studies indicate that Aladdin’s AI platform is capable of reducing the research and development cycle by 40% to 50%, reducing costs in the development phase by 50% and increasing the success rate by more than 20%.
In recent years, these supply chains have become increasingly expansive; they encompass hospitals, regulatory agencies, insurance agencies, and a range of pharmaceutical suppliers, manufacturers and distributors. As the supply chain becomes more complex, it has become more important to ensure that it remains cohesive, cooperative and flexible enough to respond to changing market needs. This is especially relevant in the era of a pandemic.
Blockchain is a technology that offers the pharmaceutical industry a way of recording data as time-stamped blocks. The information that these blocks hold, and the way that they connect to each other cannot be changed. This minimises the dangers of misinterpretation and misrepresentation.
Blockchain effectively reduces the risk of counterfeits entering the market by providing a way for drugs to be tracked, and for drug authenticity to be proven. It does this by processing and securely storing contractual information about the journey of each drug along the supply chain. This service is even more valuable in modern times, when American and European Union regulators are making track-and-trace in the pharmaceutical supply chain essential. In addition to improving the confidentiality of drug information, blockchain also enables the sharing of information between trusted parties. This enables collaboration in developing new drugs, and speeds up the process of creating them.
3D bio-printing becomes become a more effective, ethical and cheaper means of testing pharmaceutical products than animal testing. Animal testing has long been the traditional method of ensuring the safety and effectiveness of new treatments before they move onto the human testing phase. The quality of this testing however, varies depending on the pathologies and treatments in use. Animal testing is also problematic, in that it conjures serious ethical issues and questions, which many consumers are becoming more concerned with. 3D bio-printing is being offered as a better alternative to animal testing. This technique refers to the use of a computer programme that prints replicas of human cells, which builds up into replicas of humanised organs.
Bio-printing is currently being used by the French organisation ‘Poeitis’ to develop a bio-printed liver model, to test whether or not a treatment will toxify the liver. Logically, bio-printing should produce more reliable results because human-like organs are a more insightful canvas to test pharmaceuticals on than animal-organs. Dr Jens Kurreck, a professor of biomedicine, describes how “Even if organ models cannot fully replace the reliance on animal testing, it may help to substantially reduce the number of animals needed by making a preselection of non-toxic and effective substances in a human setting”.
3D bio-printing would therefore help to resolve the ethical issues surrounding animal testing, and provide a safer and more reliable means of testing pharmaceuticals. Cosmetic companies such as L’Oreal are already looking into the use of bioprinting to test cosmetics on, instead of animals. Bio-printing is also being considered for more creative uses, such as the development of personalised medicines. This is what Cellink and CIBIoTech are trying to achieve. These organisations are working together to bio-print tumour tissue to test the most effective drug for each individual patient. As we have seen therefore, 3D bio-printing has real potential to revolutionise the testing phase of pharmaceutical treatments, as well as other areas of the pharmaceutical market.
Augmented Reality (AR) could help to deepen patient understanding of the benefits and side effects of different types of drugs. Traditionally, patients tend to gather information about medicines by googling them, or attempting to read the small print on medicine packets. AR is being offered as a better alternative to both of these options to educate patients. Patients can use their phone camera to display information about different types of medicine in a visual format. This could include pictures of the different benefits and side effects of a drug, or an animated character explaining the drug in more detail.
The benefits of AR in the pharmaceutical industry is summed up well by Professor Stephen Chapman, the executive and director of Virtual Health SHED; a company responsible for developing an AR app to improve patients' understanding of atrial fibrillation. He describes “By making information easier to understand, the pharmaceutical industry could increase confidence in their medicines and greater trust in the industry”. It is hoped that better patient understanding of the drugs they are taking, will lead to better adherence to treatment programmes, and better patient outcomes overall.
Internet-connected sensors could help the pharmaceutical industry to better monitor, control and improve the process of drug development. IoT sensors embedded in pharmaceutical equipment could help to minimise the risk of failing equipment. Sensors can monitor mechanical damage, voltage, and chemical levels among other aspects. This information could help companies to repair and renew equipment when necessary, instead of becoming blindsided when equipment breaks down. This will help to speed up the drug development process, and save money.
Similarly, sensors can be used to monitor the environments which drugs are being developed and stored in. They can monitor factors such as temperature, light and even radiation levels. Information about these factors can be updated in real-time. This helps workers to ensure optimal conditions are maintained, to adjust conditions if necessary and to build a better picture of the exact conditions necessary for different types of drugs. IoT is currently being used in this way by the company AntTail, who are embedding IoT sensors into drug packaging. These sensors help to monitor the conditions during the whole journey of the drug, from manufacturing to delivery.
In conclusion, we have seen that there has been, and will continue to be a significant digital transformation in the pharmaceutical industry. This is led by movements such as 3D bioprinting to replace animal testing. This technology helps to resolve the ethical, expensive and sometimes unreliable method of animal testing which has been used in the pharmaceutical industry for years. AI is becoming a crucial tool to develop new drugs at a faster rate, often producing a more successful outcome than non-AI methods. This platform shows significant promise, and has already been used to support efforts to manage Covid-19. Blockchain technology injects transparency into the pharmaceutical journey of new drugs, and helps to reduce the risk of counterfeits entering the market. AR can help to improve patient engagement, by providing an interactive platform for patients to deepen their understanding of the different treatments available to them. Finally, IoT sensors support pharmacists in the development of drugs by helping them to more accurately monitor equipment and environmental conditions.