The healthcare industry is entering a period of significant changes. Software and new technologies are gradually beginning to revolutionize the industry.
Drug/biotech companies constantly strive to bring differentiated and high-quality medicines, vaccines and consumer healthcare products to as many people as possible.
To bring a successful drug on the market, these companies spend millions of dollars and several years in research and development (R&D) activities. However, many candidates fail in studies and never reach patients. Biotech, medical research and drug discovery involve significant expenditure. It is thus very important for the research landscape to change.
Major advances in science and technology are transforming the way scientists conduct research on diseases and are likely to improve diagnosis and treatment in the future.
Here we discuss three emerging technologies, which the pharma/biotech industry has started adopting, albeit slowly. These are poised to transform the sector by saving both time and cost.
Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems.
Drug/biotech companies are analyzing the huge amount of data in their database by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify patterns in ways that humans cannot. Artificial intelligence driven solutions are enabling pharma/biotech companies to identify the appropriate patient population, reduce or eliminate the need for some studies, and in some cases even predict outcomes in a virtual patient.
Several collaborations have been formed in the past couple of years between big pharma/biotech players and AI-driven companies, primarily startups to discover novel biological targets and molecules for pharma players using AI. For example, last year, Glaxo GSK collaborated with two external companies – Exscientia, a UK specialist in machine-learning and Insilico Medicine, a U.S. leader in AI-led drug discovery – to harness AI.
Also, last year, Roche’s RHHBY pharma arm, Genentech formed a research partnership with GNS Healthcare to power cancer drug development with the latter’s REFS causal machine learning and simulation AI platform. AstraZeneca AZN also collaborated with Boston-based BERG last year to use artificial intelligence for discovering novel targets and therapeutics to treat neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.
J&J JNJ , Pfizer PFE and Novartis NVS have collaborations with IBM’s IBM Watson Health unit to leverage the latter’s AI solutions and applications for drug discovery and accelerate primarily cancer research efforts of these companies.
Artificial intelligence has been touted as the next big emerging technology in the biotech industry as it can drastically reduce the time and cost it takes to develop new life-saving drugs.
A significant amount of time is invested in identifying a potential disease target and testing whether a drug candidate can hit that target. With the use of AI, it is estimated that the drug design timeframe can be cut down from 4-5 years to one year while also drastically reducing the costs.
Though AI is in the relatively early stages of being used in biotech for drug discovery and other purposes, a broad-scale adoption is expected by 2025.
Three dimensional printing or 3D printing is a prototyping technology by which different materials are fused under computer control to create a three-dimensional object. Add biology/cells to the process and it becomes a new technique – 3D bioprinting. These printers are used to manufacture human tissues/muscles as well as organs and bones that can be implanted into living humans.
3D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, is leading to major innovations in medicine manufacturing, particularly personalized medicines. Compared to conventional manufacturing systems, 3D bioprinters offer benefits like high production rates, better precision and accuracy and reduces material wastage, which can save costs.
Though still new to pharmaceutical drug research and development, 3D printing has been in use in the medical devices sector for many years and is mainly used to make dental implants and custom prosthetics.
The first 3D printed prescription drug, Spritam, to treat epilepsy was approved by the FDA in 2015 and launched in the United States in 2016. It was made by private company Aprecia Pharmaceuticals using its Zip Dose technology.
It is expected that 3D printing has great potential to revolutionize the field of drug manufacturing. It could be used for printing drug tablets with a personalized dosage, drugs with different release rates and for printing living tissue.
In 2016, Texas-based Nano3D BioSciences developed a novel assay for vasoactivity using its core 3D cell culture platform, magnetic 3D bioprinting in partnership with AstraZeneca.
Glaxo is working on a project to decide if it should invest in 3D printing of drugs.
Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)
Internet of Medical Things brings together medical devices and applications and technology that procure vital data in real time. Chronic diseases, which require frequent monitoring, can be tracked effectively so that patients receive timely and proper treatment. Wearable devices like Apple Watch, Fitbit and Samsung S Health help users achieve their fitness and health targets.
It could well be the future of healthcare as pharma and medical device companies look to innovate and keep up with technology to help patients and physicians better monitor and track diseases.
According to a report by Allied Market Research, the IoT healthcare market will reach $136 billion worldwide by 2021 , registering CAGR of 12.5% over 2015-2021. This is because it has the potential to transform the healthcare industry in terms of delivery, affordability, and reliability.
Pharma and tech companies are now taking things a step further and collaborating to make devices that can track chronic and lifestyle associated diseases like diabetes, which are becoming rampant.
In fact, the scope for innovation in this area – contact lenses that can detect glucose levels, devices that monitor caloric intake, bioelectronic medicines that may treat a wide range of chronic diseases, robotic-assisted surgery – is seemingly endless.
While the healthcare space is growing by leaps and bounds with these emerging technologies, mounting concerns around privacy, data protection and governance prevail. Also, many of the AI and 3D bioprinting research companies overestimate their achievements, something that drug/biotech companies should be wary of.