The pharma industry has taken a big swung into digital transformation. All participants invest in digital health topics. But as with all trending issues, and there is a lot of fuss that is hard to see through. As the medical community increasingly acknowledges the importance of digital health, the cultural shift we so often talk about is still a way to go. To change that, the first step is always getting to know what’s coming.
In this article, we collected the trends changing the pharmaceutical industry.
And if you want to have a more in-depth analysis of the topic, read our related ebook, Technologies Shaping the Future of Pharma!
1. Have patients in the advisory board of pharmaceutical giants
As patients take their health and through that their own future into their hands with the help of digital health, they also should be treated as equal partners in the hospitals, pharmacies – and even pharma companies. Drug producers should have an advisory board including patients who have experience with the given company’s products.
It would be easier to develop new products if the exact needs of the customers are well-known. Only with their help would it become possible to create a healthcare system that is futuristic even decades after the first plans were drawn.
2. Digital health strategy “around the pill”
Rather than focusing on traditional drug manufacturing and marketing, pharma companies will put more emphasis on new approaches relying on technology to appeal more to providers and payers. “Around the pill” is more than the production and the sale of drugs: it is about developing a drug and attaching a digital health technology to it.
These are often patient-support programs, that are often non-clinical solutions, that can boost patient outcomes and benefit the entire health system. These initiatives create win-win situations, patients receiving more than just a pill, while pharma companies can build on the data and the feedback they receive – and the likely loyalty of patients who appreciate the extra care. If done well.
Good solutions however are not easy to make. There are only a handful of good examples, one of these is that of mySugr. The startup’s approach for diabetes management is a gamified approach, wherein they reimagined diabetes as a Tamagotchi-like monster that can be tamed. By completing challenges, earning points and receiving personalized insights, the app incentivises patients to keep their glucose level at a desirable one. The idea was so good pharma giant Roche acquired mySugr in 2017 and kept the team to continue growth. The company went on to pair the app with its existing Accu-Chek Guide glucose meter to create the mySugr Bundle.
3. Digital pills
Digital pills, medications with embedded electronic circuits can be good solutions for specific patients with specific conditions. These refer to ingestible medications with embedded electronic circuits rather than smartphone logging apps.
For example, such pills could help with medication adherence in people taking medicines regularly. The first pill approved by the FDA was Ablify Mycite in 2017 (by since-dissolved pharma startup Proteus), a drug that was aimed at helping psychiatric conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. As a patient swallows the pill, the acidic environment in the stomach activates the pill's sensor, which thereafter begins to send Bluetooth signals to an external patch. It will then notify the smartphone app that the pill was taken. Such pills are game-changers for patients with severe conditions like schizophrenia and severe depression, as for them, missing a medication can have serious consequences.
As we wrote in our related article, The Present And Future Of Digital Pills, another company, etectRx gives patients more control over when monitoring starts. Their FDA-approved solution involves a removable lanyard rather than a patch, which patients can remove after taking their medicine.
The present and the possible future of digital pills
4. In silico trials
In silico experiments are conducted by means of a computer simulation. Besides its time and cost-effectiveness, in silico trials completely circumvent animal testing and side effects on human and animal participants.
In silico trials can completely replicate human clinical research, according to a recent study. Research indicates that these trials are clearly efficient. However, it was not until COVID-19 that these became more widely used. The pandemic broke down the reluctance of medical professionals against such use of technology, as the need for quick and effective trials was imminent.
5. Virtual reality against painkillers
Virtual reality (VR) is becoming a reality in hospitals as we speak. As a doctor, you could assist in the OR without ever lifting a scalpel. If you are a medical student, you could study the human body more closely and prepare better for real-life surgeries. As a patient with mental health problems, you could fight your possible fear of heights, schizophrenia or paranoia more successfully.
However, one of the most successful applications of medical VR is in the field of stress release and pain reduction for patients suffering from chronic pain. Perhaps pharma companies should consider stepping into the field instead of creating new types of painkillers. Brennan Spiegel and his team at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center are experimenting with the technology. They even found a significant drop in pain scores in the case of VR therapies. Spiegel believes the future will be VR pharmacies with specialists prescribing the appropriate VR treatment to patients.
6. Precision medicine through pharmacogenomics
As the National Institutes of Health (NIH) formulated it, precision medicine is “an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.” There are various trends in precision medicine connected to pharma. On the one hand, researchers experiment with cancer drugs that directly attack cancerous cells without damaging other tissues; for example in treating cervical cancer. On the other hand, medical experts try to incorporate genetics into the process of creating targeted therapies and personalized treatments. Pharmacogenomics is one way to go about this.
Pharmacogenomics is defined as the study of variability in drug response due to the genetic code. It argues that despite general sentiments, medications do not have the same effect on people. There are already some, who expressly recommend genetic testing before any prescription of e.g. Warfarin, a type of anti-blood-clotting drug takes place.
7. 3D printing drugs
Researchers worldwide are working on possible solutions: from a group that printed a miniature kidney, through technological solutions like BioAssemblyBot we wrote about earlier, to entirely new methods that can lead to patient-specific heart tissue printing. The list is long and set in a clinical setting.
UK-based FabRx believes they will be able to commercialize printed tablets within the next 5-10 years, and 3D printing will probably become available in every major hospital in the next decade. Whether we will also print out drugs at home or at least at the pharmacy on the corner of the street? The latter is more imaginable, but maybe in 20 years, 3D printers as home-based pharmacies will also not be considered as elements of science fiction.