Photo: Technology can be used to facilitate the combining of molecules in order to find new drugs more quickly. Credit: stevepb | Pixabay.

By José Manuel Blanco

Traditional ceramic pharmacy pots have given way for virtual laboratories and robots to help out in warehouses. Technologies that are transforming other sectors are also serving to drive changes in pharmaceutical companies and innovate during a time when social distancing and the demand for new medicines require the digitisation of a sector that is essential to social welfare.

While current digital therapies complement traditional medicines and co-exist with drugs adapted to each patient's genetics, software also helps doctors to administer those drugs. Researchers from the Universities of Manchester and Nottingham (UK), together with Salford Royal Hospital in Manchester, have launched SMASH, a digital platform which, a year after being used in 43 GP practices, has reduced the number of risky drug prescriptions by more than 40%. By using individual patient data, for example, doctors can avoid prescribing aspirin if the patient has a history of internal bleeding.

The importance of the cloud, big data, and AI

The cloud works as an ally for processing large amounts of data within the pharmaceutical sector. “It can provide you with a lot of agility, a lot of efficiency and save costs”, summarises the director of Opinno Barcelona, Xavier Contijoch, who, faced with concerns about possible confidential and critical patient data leaks, describes the cloud as a “super-safe environment”.

In an interview for the MIT Technology Review in Spanish, the CEO of Almirall Pharmaceuticals, Peter Guenter, said that real-world data was more useful than clinical trials. “I am convinced that understanding how medicines are used in the real world is what really matters. I believe the answer will come from collecting big data, homogenising that data and finding a way for artificial intelligence algorithms to eliminate bias.

Other pharmaceutical companies already know the importance of big data in solving health challenges. For example, Novartis centralises the intake of clinical study data worldwide. “They apply analytics which serve every country in the world,” says Contijoch, who adds that, within this multi-national company, “AI has been implemented in R&D processes, that is, in the development of molecules for innovative drugs.

The first pharmaceutical drug designed to treat OCD, by using artificial intelligence, started its Phase 1 trials in early 2020. Developed by the British company, Exscientia, it took only 12 months to begin this phase, while in other cases it takes five years of prior testing. Exscientia's technology checks large databases and is able to predict which compounds do not generate side effects to reach the desired goal.

Technology and collaboration

In 2019, Exscientia signed a 22 million euro agreement with the biopharmaceutical company, Celgene, to accelerate the discovery of drugs for cancer and autoimmune diseases. In 2020, it also announced an initiative, alongside other companies, to detect potential drugs against COVID-19. As a result, it gained access to a package of molecules including drugs and other compounds which have been successfully tested in humans. The company intended to scan the list to find any drugs that could fight the virus.

Another pharmaceutical company, Boehringer Ingelheim, partnered with biotech company, Click Therapeuticsin 2020, to develop digital therapies worth 500 million dollars. More specifically, both companies planned to create and offer a mobile application together to reduce cognitive deficits in schizophrenia patients.

Photo: Technology can be used to facilitate the combination of molecules to find new drugs more quickly. Credit: stevepb | Pixabay.

Meanwhile, Opinno has been working with pharmaceutical companies so that they can learn “how digitalisation and new technologies can help with communication between industry and medicine”, explains Contijoch. The aim is to obtain “evidence and data” to find out what doctors require on a daily basis and for industry to provide them with personalised and valuable information. Opinno is also looking at how to improve clinical drug trials.

Laboratories and robots that overcome social distancing

At a time when scientific collaboration has become more necessary than ever, virtual laboratories are another option for sharing knowledge. Also, they can help maintain safety during times of pandemic. IBM has created RoboRXN, a chemical laboratory that uses AI, cloud computing and robotics to develop drugs from the researchers' own home.

To do so, scientists draw the molecular compounds. The system then uses machine learning to predict the ingredients and their quantity. A robot is then responsible for developing the formula in a physical laboratory. In this way, experiments are simplified, which has traditionally made drug production more costly, and the pace of research is maintained in times of social distance and mass teleworking. The American start-up, Strateos, has also developed a remote, robotic testing laboratory. Its proposal is similar: it consists of a space that can be controlled remotely, in order to direct experiments from any location.

These robots can also be found in other areas, such as warehouses. The Indian start-up, Addverb, which specialises in the automation of pharmaceutical warehouses, has developed Dynamo, a robot which uses sensors and cameras to 'see' and navigate around the warehouse, transporting boxes of medicines on top of it, according to the optimal route calculated by its system in order to reach its destination. Another of its devices is Cruiser, which moves pallets:

Adopting post-Coronavirus technology

Contijoch explains that the pharmaceutical industry has traditionally been “a very rigid, highly regulated market that has not seen the need to transform itself, or to implement artificial intelligence. Now, thanks to coronavirus, its implementation has been greatly accelerated”.

For companies in the sector that have not yet adopted these technologies, the message is that this is “an inevitable process” that has become “urgent” due to the pandemic. “Not adopting them is going to be a competitive disadvantage: the patient and the doctor have become increasingly empowered, increasingly digital, and the industry needs to move in that direction,” the expert explains. It is time to embrace these technologies and to focus on their implementation so as not to be left behind.