Digital health is poised to bring its disruptive force across the healthcare landscape, and the pharmaceutical industry isn’t immune to the upcoming changes. From including patients in decision-making, personalized care and automating pharmaceutical processes, the paradigm shift that digital health brings to pharma organizations is slow but steady.
Here are 5 main technologies guiding the technological shift, as described in the e-book Technologies Shaping The Future Of Pharma, by The Medical Futurist Institute.
1. Patient inclusion in key decision-making processes improves deliverables in pharma
For as long as the drug industry has existed, patients’ roles have revolved solely as the end-user; destined to use products which were years in the making. However, all steps that had occurred prior to obtaining the finalized product happened within the heavily-guarded doors of pharma’s ivory tower. With 21st century technologies, these doors burst open and patients made their way into the proverbial tower.
A prime example is that of the “#wearenotwaiting” movement created by diabetics. The latter, fed up with lagging regulations that kept MedTech companies from introducing an artificial pancreas into the market, took matters into their own hands. Through online communities, they created such an open-sourced DIY pancreas. They further built discussion platforms like DiabetesMine and cloud-based solutions like Tidepool for more accessible and actionable diabetes data. Their initiative even forced the FDA’s hand to later approve of the first commercial artificial pancreas.
This exemplifies the need for pharma authorities to include patients in their decision-making processes. Through their input, their exact needs will be known and better products will be delivered to attend to their needs.
It’s not enough to have patients fill out surveys as part of “patient centricity”. What pharma companies need to adopt is patient design. It goes beyond the passive act of asking about their opinion and actively involving them in crucial steps that will impact their health.
In 2017, the FDA held its first Patient Engagement Advisory Committee meeting. It set the pace to involve patients in their regulatory activities. The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) also took steps in this direction. It developed a framework to integrate patient organizations in their decision-making. Other members of the pharmaceutical industry could adopt similar strategies in order to better attend to their patients’ needs. In addition, such approaches will help deliver appropriate solutions in a timely manner.
2. Integrating A.I. in drug development slashes time and cost
From finding suitable candidates to animal trials, from unexpected side effects in clinical trials to multiple trial-and-error sequences, drug development is understandably a lengthy and costly process. In fact, estimates put the numbers at about 12 years and $2.9 billion for an experimental drug to advance from a lab to the market. However, developments in the field of artificial intelligence can now help diminish the cost and time traditionally associated with drug development.
To exemplify this possibility, Insilico Medicine, an A.I. pharma startup, identified a potential new drug in only 46 days. Its algorithm achieved this by analyzing vast amounts of data that would otherwise take humans years to go through. The drug didn’t result in a commercial one as this achievement was to prove the potential of A.I. in drug development. However, practical examples do exist within the industry.
Partnering with IBM and the University of Toronto in 2015, A. I. startup Atomwise used its algorithm to identify two drugs with significant potential to reduce Ebola infectivity. It accomplished this effort in less than a day. In 2020, the company teamed with researchers to find broad-spectrum treatments for COVID-19 and future coronavirus strains.
Also on the COVID-19 pandemic, the BarabasiLab paired its network medicine toolset with A.I. to find potential treatments. The team managed to obtain a list of such drug candidates in less than 10 days. The latter are undergoing tests on human cell lines in experimental labs. These are only a few examples of drug companies employing A.I.’s benefits in drug development. In fact, there are more than 230 such startups and this number will only keep climbing.
3. With 3D-printing, pharma companies can make personalized medicine a reality
Despite being a relatively new technology adopted in healthcare, 3D-printed drugs show great promise. The first FDA approval of a 3D-printed pill was issued only in 2015, but the technology already paves the way for personalized medicine. This was, in fact, the conclusion of a 2019 research. The researchers involved successfully 3D-printed 6 different drugs into a single, multilayered polypill. With this technique, pills of specific doses tailored to individual patients are made possible.
Medical 3D-printing company FabRx is aggressively working towards this goal. This April, they released M3DIMAKER – the first pharmaceutical 3D printer to manufacture personalized medicines. It allows for the printing of medicines according to the user’s manufacturing needs, which in some cases means one month worth of medications (28 pills) in around 8 minutes!
Traditionally, pills were manufactured in standard doses and had to be manually adjusted, for example, by crushing or splitting them in order to fit the dose for children. This method potentially leads to dosage errors or even improper drug use. With M3DIMAKER, this issue is a thing of the past. The printer allows pharmacists to make pills with the precise dose for individual patients. “I truly believe that we are one step closer to personalized medicine thanks to the M3DIMAKER,” said Dr. Alvaro Goyanes, Director of Development at FabRx.
4. Boosting adherence of chronic care patients with digital pills
Yearly, lack of adherence to one’s medication amounts to 125,000 deaths and around $300 billion in healthcare costs; all of these are in fact preventable. However, adhering to treatment plans with multiple medications is especially challenging for patients suffering from chronic conditions such as schizophrenia or cardiovascular diseases. To remedy this pressing issue, digital pills can boost adherence while preventing deaths.
The FDA first approved of such a digital pill in 2017 produced by Otsuka Pharmaceutical and Proteus for chronic mental disorders. This pill contains an ingestible sensor which is a wearable patch sensor and an app track. This allows physicians to monitor a patient’s compliance to the treatment.
However, Proteus filed for bankruptcy in June 2020. Despite one company’s struggles, the technology it employed isn’t at fault. In fact, an independent study in 2019 showed the improved adherence to treatment by tuberculosis-infected patients using oral pills equipped with Proteus’ system. Their adherence rate was even comparable to in-person medication adherence programs. As such, the technology has the potential to boost adherence and can be further developed by other companies.
5. Automation supplements the supply chain with more effective solutions
With automation, repetitive manual tasks are a thing of the past. By including robots in drug-manufacturing factories, the supply chain gets a boost on effectiveness. These automated machines are rapid and consistent to the task programmed, while being cost-effective.
Such solutions already are in practice in the industry. Denso Robotics supplies pharmaceutical robots for manufacturing processes, while Innovation Associates offers PharmASSIST ROBOTx, an automated dispenser. The latter’s dispensing capacity range is scalable and its data mining ability allows pharmacists to optimize its use based on these insights. Already in Denmark, 70% of community pharmacies already use such automated dispensing robots. In mainland Europe, 30-40% of pharmacies use these solutions.
A growing concern with automation is that of not requiring human assistants, leading to rising unemployment. However, the opposite might be true. A pharmacist in Scotland employed more people after including automated technologies in the pharmacy; the reason being the need for more people to manage the resulting increased turnover with automation.
Moreover, with mundane, repetitive tasks delegated to robots, human input will be important in responsibilities requiring creativity and problem-solving skills. Technology also lends a hand in these situations. Training of workers can be enhanced with augmented reality by overlaying useful instructions onto the real world. For manual workers dealing with heavy weights or standing for long hours, exoskeletons provide additional support.
As such, drug companies stand more to gain by integrating automation in their supply chain than by shying away from it.