"We don't want to miss the train of digital health" is a phrase I often hear from pharmaceutical companies. However, there are no trains to catch anymore. Disruptive healthcare trends are the futuristic spaceships many pharma companies don’t even see flying above them. If pharma doesn't prepare for the coming waves of change, it won't have an industry at all.
It might sound like a bold statement, but trends suggest a future in which medical innovation will be born in a garage lab or a small startup company. In the last hundred years, advances in medicine belonged mainly to the R&D departments of pharma companies. Technological developments might change that forever.
What if a startup can perform clinical trials in silico? Instead of spending billions of dollars and waiting for years, they might be able to test thousands of drug targets in seconds on billions of patient models without the need for testing drugs on real people. What if they can recruit the right patients for these trials through digital methods more easily and much more cheaply?
Here are the 6 trends that will shape the future of pharma.
Empowered patients might launch their own biotech companies to develop new drugs or acquire companies that failed to do so. They know what pharma and other medical companies are working on and how they communicate with fellow patients and their caregivers as they follow the companies on social media. Empowered patients have high expectations and if those are not met, patients find their own solutions.
Augmented and virtual reality
Augmented reality and virtual reality with devices such as Google’s digital contact lens, Microsoft’s Hololens or Oculus Rift give us a new view of the world through digital information. Patients can see how the drug works in 3D in front of their eyes instead of just reading long descriptions on the bottle. Lab workers could monitor their experiments with augmented reality equipment. In factories, workers could start working without hands on trainings as the device would tell them what to do, and how to do it.
Truly personalized medicine
Genomics and personalized medicine enable us to receive therapy customized to our own molecular makeup. Today's healthcare cannot manage this complexity. So far, there have only been a few examples of genomic information being used in making decisions about treatment. I own a huge text file containing my DNA data which I can take to my doctor and hope to receive personalized drugs instead of the blockbusters that are manufactured for the “average” of millions of people who are all genetically and metabolically different. What if a digital health company can quickly connect the dots for the patient regarding genomic background and susceptibility for drugs and dosages? If big pharma won’t provide the tailored medicine patients will demand, they will go elsewhere or build their own.
The first 3D-printed drug, Spritam, that dissolves quickly and is used in epilepsy, was approved by the US FDA in 2015. What if small companies come up with other solutions for creating drugs that can be metabolised faster and reach the market more easily because of this manufacturing method? Whole pharma supply chains will have to be redesigned within years, perhaps even months.
There are already sensors that measure crucial vital signs cheaply and comfortably by being placed on, or inside the body. The success of clinical trials largely depends on how medical professionals collect data about their patients. Imagine automating this process through the new generation of health sensors that’s in development now.
Medical decision making with artificial intelligence using the power of supercomputers will change everyday medicine. Cognitive computers, such as IBM Watson, have been used in many ways to analyse big data, not only in genomic research but also in biotechnology. This will also shape the way new drugs are found. It might lead to the end of human experimentation through detailed simulation of human physiology. Our era, with drugs being tested on actual people, will seem barbaric to people of the future. What if supercomputers could test thousands of drug targets on billions of simulations modelling the physiology of the human body in seconds? Pharma should support such research for their own benefit.
Will the pharma industry react quickly and effectively to these changes? I hope so, as nobody wants the next successful drugs to come from a garage lab without clear regulation and oversight. We, patients and caregivers, need pharma companies to step up their game and meet us on the way towards a more humanistic and technological future of healthcare.