What we learned about the future of pharma at the Life Sciences Conference 2020
21 December 2020
It’s been a whirlwind year for the global scientific community – but what does the future of pharma hold? The Scotsman hosted its 2020 Life Sciences Conference on December 3. Ideagen attended the conference to hear from a series of expert industry speakers, including representatives from Accenture, BioCity and Ideagen customers Symbiosis and Cell & Gene Therapy Catapult.
Here’s what we learned about the future of pharmaceutical technology, innovation and supply chains – and what 2021 holds for the pharma world:
Top challenges for 2021
Oonagh O’Shea of Accenture pinpointed 3 emerging challenges that the pharmaceutical world will have to meet in 2021.
1 Gone are the days of a handful of safe-bet, standard ‘blockbuster’ drugs manufactured and distributed by pharmaceutical organisations.
The COVID-19 vaccination initiative has been a case in point demonstrating a new style of pharmaceutical development: rapidly developed, diverse and varied clusters of complementary products.
The increasing prominence of biologic and so-called ‘niche-buster’ drugs has given the industry much more flexibility and variability than a decade ago – but this change also demands a sharper regulatory eye than ever, and a greater need for complete understanding and control of the manufacturing process as the market fragments and diversifies.
2 Pharmaceutical approval processes are now faster than ever.
O’Shea estimates that up to 75% of drugs submitted for FDA approval are now fast-tracked through the process. The so-called ‘fast track’ is rapidly becoming, simply, the track.
Commercial pharma manufacturing must be scaled and prepared to meet the unprecedented speed of the journey to market.
The breakneck pace of the COVID-19 vaccine programme rolled out from early December in the UK won’t trouble a manufacturer like Pfizer or BioNTech. But smaller players in the pharma world will struggle to match this new pace without careful consideration of their manufacturing capabilities.
3 As a result, the supply chain will be key.
Meeting these two previous challenges will be impossible without solving the material and logistical challenges of the modern pharma supply chain.
Navigating regulatory landscapes, material practicalities and interested party relationships will all be invaluable steps to guaranteeing the quality, integrity and speed of the supply chain from lab to patient.
Collaboration will be vital
Colin McKay of Symbiosis made a similar argument to O’Shea’s emphasis on the significance of supply chain and third-party interaction.
He argued that industry networking and cross-organisational collaboration was limited several years ago, but that a proactive ‘joined-up’ approach was becoming more common. The COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed and accelerated this change, prompting an advanced therapy medicinal products (ATMP)- and vaccine-oriented life science collaborative network.
This growing lateral awareness, he argued, should focus on the ‘greater good’ by promoting an ‘industry community’ that’s ‘greater than the sum of its parts’.
And further steps are already being taken in this direction with bodies such as the Life Sciences Scotland Industry Leadership Group, of which McKay is a member.
This collaborative approach should in turn help to improve the speed and responsiveness of life science organisations. Like O’Shea, McKay pinpointed rapid operational reaction times as an increasingly attractive feature for life science businesses looking to expand and acquire new business.
Changing the balance: more manufacturing, more investment
Two delegates – John Arthur of the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, and Colin Roberts of BioCity – identified structural imbalances affecting the pharmaceutical world and called for their redressing.
Arthur pointed out that the UK spends around 10 times as much as the Republic of Ireland on pharmaceutical research and development, but manufactures only slightly more product. This imbalance negatively impacts UK GDP by consuming finances and creating potential innovation which is then snapped up and realised abroad, in manufacturing hubs such as Singapore and the U.S.
Only strong and sustained investment in British pharmaceutical manufacturing will prevent this pharmaceutical GDP ‘drain’. The Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (MMIC) itself is a positive indicator of commitment to this goal, with 4 large GMP-operational manufacturing spaces set to open at Glasgow Airport as part of a £56m project.
In contrast, Roberts identified a drop-off between the research power and real-world commercial value of pharmaceutical academia, particularly in Scotland. With around 80% of Scottish pharmaceutical start-ups springing from universities, more needs to be done to foster an incubating environment which nurtures these academic groups as they morph into operational businesses.
Roberts noted that many of these start-ups find it hugely difficult to secure funding. Low amounts of available strategic investment capital make the first steps of the journey the most difficult – with the typical funding amount of £800,000 offered by BioCity a drop in the ocean compared to the full financial needs of these nascent start-ups.
Wish list for the future
The delegates laid out their wishes and aspirations for the pharmaceutical sector going into 2021.
The consensus was as follows:
- Greater investment and access to talent
- Deeper cross-operational collaboration and data-sharing
- Increased application of digital data management
Bringing digital data together to unlock deeper control of processes and to distil a repeatable, predictable manufacturing pathway stood out as a key consideration across the board.
O’Shea referenced the dramatic potential of so-called ‘DARQ’ technology for the future of pharma:
- Distributive Tech
- Artificial Intelligence
- Extended Reality
- Quantum Computing
Digital technology is already impacting how pharmaceuticals are developed and manufactured, with the world’s first AI-developed drug emerging for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder at the beginning of 2020.
How digital systems will strengthen and prepare the pharma world for a new decade remains to be seen. But with new, advanced platforms for managing pharmaceutical quality coming to the fore, the opportunity to embed unprecedented levels of quality improvement, cut cycle times and get medicines to patients faster than ever is surely an exciting innovation.
Confronting the challenges facing the future of pharma and turning them into opportunities will be the key to a successful decade for players in this space. Learn more about pharmaceutical quality management technology.