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AstraZeneca CIO: using IT to decrease the cost of drug failure

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Astrazeneca

Taking a drug to market from inception to finished product can be a seriously expensive business. AstraZeneca's CIO, Dave Smoley, is trying to change that.

Most people in the pharmaceutical industry believe that successfully producing drugs is purely down to breakthrough science.

Whilst this may once have been the case, years of pharmaceutical inefficiencies have created enough reason for change, and it has left IT leaders indispensable to the future success of some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms.

Dave Smoley, CIO of European pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, is responsible for both digital innovation and a vast simplification of internal processes. He wants to leverage IT to bring drugs to market faster, cut costs and most importantly – improve patient outcomes.

“We’re pushing to figure out how we can make our own space simpler, gain efficiencies and reduce waste,” he begins.

“Because it traditionally [taking drugs to market], has been a long and expensive process.”

A 2014 report from Tufts University Center for the Study of Drug Development found the average cost of going from chemical compound to clinical trials to FDA-approved drug is $2.7 billion.

Largely this figure represents the hordes of drugs that fail to leave the laboratory, as well as accounting for huge marketing budgets required to evangelize the benefits.

Briefly, it works like this:

Pharmaceutical firms will find a chemical compound that seemingly has an effect on malady in their laboratories.

After isolating the compound, tests will begin in petri dishes.

If successful, next is animal testing, used to build a case to transfer over for human or clinical trials (of which only one in 1,000 compounds found in the lab actually reach the clinical trial stage for humans).

These competitors are putting to shame past pharmaceutical inefficiencies and often play by different rules

This pre-clinical work, known as drug discovery, takes around 3 to 4 years.

And for the lucky compounds that make it through the pre-clinical stage, 3 separate stages of human testing awaits. The first, for safety, the second for dosing, and the third, to ensure effectiveness against whatever the drug is fighting in the first place.

This stage takes anywhere between 5 to 10 years, with just 1 in 10 making it through to market.

Those that fail early on are usually pulled up for a lack of efficacy or high level toxicity that could render a drug dangerous.

Such a low rate of success during testing means that sustaining large internal R&D organizations under current operating models is simply not financially viable.

It is therefore essential that pharmaceutical companies either improve success rates or decrease the cost of failure by looking beyond running production efficiently and instead, rethinking their approach to reach a level of innovation that matches recent changes in the pharmaceutical landscape.

This sentiment becomes more pressing when you consider the huge number of start-ups disrupting pharmaceutical inefficiencies. Having enjoyed relative stability for around 60 years, the industry has reached a critical stage characterized by a separation between traditionalists and disruptors.

Dave Chase, Managing Partner at Healthfundr, a platform providing investors with access to innovative healthtech companies, once wrote that healthcare is where startups come to die. Yet with the barriers to entry lower than ever before, and an innate focus from startups on patient outcomes, a real dent is being made.

Advancements such as personalized medicine backed up by cheap DNA sequencing are putting to shame traditional pharmaceutical inefficiencies, bringing with them a seldom-seen agility and aggressiveness that is difficult to match.

Smoley believes that IT is the answer.

“What we have found is that by using information technology we’re able to compress this [drug discovery lifecycle] in a couple of different areas.”

Through approaching tasks that previously had to be done In Vivo (experimentation using a whole living organism) In Silico (drug experimentation performed through computer simulation), Smoley believes AstraZeneca can leverage IT to, “accurately depict animal and cellular reactions to certain compounds. Which in turn will help anticipate and refine studies.”

Through data analysis and specially written algorithms that simulate every possible interaction and outcome, drug discovery times can be reduced.

This ultimately results in faster, safer, and more accurate inroads to human testing.

This is just one side of the equation.

The other described by Smoley is the human side of historic pharmaceutical inefficiencies. The side requiring vast amounts of data collection, assimilation, patient enrolment and submissions, which through the use of enterprise collaboration tools can help significantly speed up processes too.

A lot of it comes down to the “classic IT productivity model,” Smoley explains.

“In some cases this will disruptively change the way that work is done.”

For legacy pharmaceutical companies, technology is set to be the cornerstone of future progress.

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