7 Digital Innovations That Will Disrupt Pharma (As We Know It Today)

In recent years, digital innovation has fundamentally transformed the pharmaceutical industryDespite concerns about compliance and risk mitigation, the world of “digital” is rapidly infiltrating the way in which pharmaceutical, medical, scientific, market access, and marketing teams are communicating, collaborating and crowdsourcing new ideas. In short, we are seeing an unprecedented level of disruption. This disruption is the result of digital technology converging with traditional medicine to create a critical mass of “healthcare convergence“.

The convergence of digital innovations has enormous implications and opportunities for the life sciences industry. On the one hand, there is the democratization of information. In the age of the “internet of things“, online information about diseases, medical interventions, and new technology has become widely available to patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers. Information has essentially become “free” and traditional paid channels are quickly becoming obsolete. Digital platforms such as PatientsLikeMe, Sermo and company-generated private advisory boards and steering committees are the “new normal” when it comes to continuous and authentic communication.

Democratization also refers to how information is generated. Instead of stemming from single sources, online communities are now auto-generating data. With this comes an additional challenge to pharma companies. These companies must now monitor and manage multiple streams of content from a variety of sources, despite continuously shrinking budgets.

Below are several digital innovations to watch for and begin piloting in the near future. This preemptive approach is key to staying ahead of competitors and cementing one’s self as an authority on new technologies.

“Beyond the Pill” Thinking

Pharma companies can no longer rely on blockbuster drugs in today’s hyper-fragmented market. Indeed, the physical manufacturing of drugs is no longer adequate. Therefore, the creation of “around the pill” digital solutions is necessary to augment the foundational business models that traditionally fueled the industry. Companies such as Livongo and mySugr are changing the way patients with chronic diseases are monitored and managed for long-term success. New collaborations are also becoming the norm, including instances where pharma companies are partnering with apps and other platforms. Some examples of these partnerships include:

  • Teva Pharmaceuticals purchased Gecko Health Innovations in order to leverage the CareTRx platform for chronic sufferers of the respiratory disease.
  • Sanofi joined forces with Verily Life Sciences to work on devices and patient support programs in Diabetes.
  • Alcon, a division of Novartis, partnered with Verily to build a wireless sensing capability into ocular devices for applications such as glucose sensing and accommodative vision correction.
  • Pfizer is working with IBM Watson to speed up the identification of new drug targets for their immuno-oncologic franchise.
  • Novo Nordisk has teamed up with Glooko to create a diabetes management digital application and with IBM Watson to analyze patient compliance.
  • GlaxoSmithKline is collaborating with Verily to create bioelectronic medicines to tackle a wide range of chronic diseases.

Digital Drug Adherence Innovations

Non-adherence to medications is a universal issue that continues to haunt pharmaceutical companies, as well as other other healthcare stakeholders. The issue goes far beyond lost revenues, as can result in poor long-term health outcomes, increased hospitalizations, and even death. In fact, 40% of all medically related problems experienced by patients are the result of medication non-adherence. All of these factors have huge financial ramifications for the healthcare system.

Moreover, many companies are pursuing new technologies to counteract the issue of patients not adhering to their medication plan. In 2015, the FDA approved the first drug combined with a digestible sensor, which was developed through the Otsuka and Proteus Digital Health partnership. When the schizophrenia drug is taken, an ingestible sensor communicates with a wearable sensor patch. The patient’s smartphone app then picks up this valuable data.

There are also several companies developing smart pillboxes, bottles, and caps, including MedMinder, AdhereTech, and Towerview Health. These pillboxes help patients by alerting them when they have missed taking their medication. Additionally, directly observed therapy is being automated by companies such as AiCure and emocha, using both real people and smart algorithms, via artificial intelligence. Finally, companies such as Propeller Health and Cohero Health are leveraging connected devices such as inhalers, to move from adherence monitoring to more comprehensive respiratory condition management.

“In Silico” Drug Testing

Clinical trials are typically extremely expensive to administer due to the necessity of humans and/or animal testing. However, this framework is quickly becoming outdated, as clinical trials become faster and cheaper than ever. Replacing the “in vivo” model, the “in silico” model of testing is now possible through the simulation of human physiology via advanced computer algorithms. By replicating everything from body fluids, circulation, electrolytes, hormones, metabolism to skin, digitally innovative companies like HumMod are bringing sophisticated mathematical human modeling closer to everyday usage.

Augmented Reality (AR)

AR is creating many exciting and unprecedented new opportunities in healthcare. For instance, nurses can now find veins more easily before taking blood or injecting medications with AccuVein, while residents can now describe an eye condition to a physician using EyeDecide. AR also holds great promise for drug packaging instructions and may have positive implications for patient drug adherence. It may also reduce the percentage of medical problems associated with inappropriate utilization of certain drugs. On the other end of the spectrum is projects such as the recent partnership between HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. This project involves VR therapy, which assists PTSD patients by helping them overcome their fears and anxiety.

Virtual Reality (VR)

Like AR, VR is also increasingly popular in both medical learning environments and in clinics. In these cases, patients receive technical assistance that can help them deal with an assortment of conditions and side effects. For instance, the “VR in OR” app allows students to view a live video stream of operations from a surgeon’s VR headset. Similarly, companies like Mindmaze are combining both AR and VR to assist stroke and Parkinson’s patients in recovery or disease management. On the other hand, children with autism can be immersed in 360-degree virtual worlds, helping them to overcome anxiety triggers.

3-D Drug Printing

Digitally innovative companies such as Aprecia, have begun using 3-D printing technology to create the ZipDose platform. This platform creates high dose medications in rapidly disintegrating formulations. The first of these 3-D printed drugs is Spritam, which was approved by the FDA in August 2015 and helps patients manage epilepsy. 3-D printing technology assembles this drug in layers to increase its dissolubility speed. Following Aprecia’s lead, FabRx will be able to commercialize printed tablets for hospital consumption and distribution within the next 10-15 years. Thus, it is only a matter of time before drug formulations are printed directly in a patient’s home. This is particularly applicable to drugs prescribed to match a patient’s exact genetic pattern or specific physiological parameters. If 3-D printed medications can be further customized, palatability and drug adherence may also improve. In the case of children, these drugs could resemble candy, toys or even specific colors.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI is undoubtedly the next digital frontier. AI has the potential to disrupt our expectations around medical imaging, patient management, treatment planning and even drug creation. The acceleration of clinical trial development and the decoding capabilities of smart machines will ultimately give way to groundbreaking medical technologies. These technologies may cure, if not eradicate, certain conditions or diseases faster and cheaper than ever before.

The speed that machine learning offers is another advantage. The complex algorithms built by AI-generated machine learning are creating groundbreaking drug prediction platforms in mere days. For example, Atomwise used a database of molecular structures to launched a virtual search tool that tags current medicines that can be redesigned to treat Ebola. Similarly, Johnson and Johnson’s Patient Athlete program uses real-time data collection to improve patient health. The company also partnered with Google to integrate data analytics capabilities into a digital surgery platform. Finally, Roche has been incorporating AI into its partnership plans by acquiring Bina Technologies, known for its machine learning platform for large-scale genome sequencing. Roche has also acquired Berg Health, which leverages AI for drug discovery, diagnostics and other healthcare applications.

It is clear that the impact of AI is widespread. Right now, AI is infiltrating how we conduct disease identification and diagnosis (ie. PReDicT Program), personalize treatment and modify behavior (ie. Somatix and SkinVision), drug discovery and manufacturing (ie. Microsoft’s Project Hanover) and MIT’s Clinical Machine Learning Group), clinical trial research, radiology and radiotherapy, smart electronic health records with handwriting and image recognition tools (ie. MathWorks and Google’s Cloud Vision API) and epidemic outbreak predictions (ie. HealthMap).

Where Do We Go from Here?

In sum, traditional healthcare and pharma companies need to embrace and capitalize on digital innovation. Companies need to follow cutting-edge initiatives such as Bayer’s Grants4Apps program, Sandoz’ SandozHACK and Johnson and Johnson’s JLAbs. Moreover, viewing competitors as threats instead of allies only reduces the chances of future growth and success. We stand at the precipice of a major convergence between technology and healthcare companies. It is this consolidation that can ultimately bring about a shared vision of sustained wellness to the world.

There is a need for the healthcare community and all interested stakeholders to join forces and start collaborating. More specifically, they need to build a consensus on the new regulations that will help fuel the onslaught of new health devices and apps that will transform the field of medicine.

The infrastructure that currently exists within government and industry is not conducive to dealing with the disruptive wave of innovation. Online advisory boards and steering committees, consisting of innovative voices and influencers from across the globe, is one way to create seamless collaboration, develop consensus documents and establish new policies to foster and feed accelerated change.