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Last week, I participated in a panel discussion on innovation versus implementation at the inaugural Precision Medicine Leaders’ Summit in San Diego. As I spent time speaking with world-class researchers and leaders in the industry I was reminded that although we’ve made many scientific advances, the pharma industry has been slow to implement emerging technologies. And like many industries slow to adopt new technology the pharma industry is overdue for its own disruption.  

The current drug development process in the pharma industry is inefficient and unsustainable. It takes 10 to 15 years and $2.6 billion to bring a drug to market. A majority of those costs are coming from failed trials with an over 90 percent failure rate.  The current healthcare system cannot sustain the rising costs of drug development and more importantly patients do not have time to wait for treatments to be developed. Something has to change.    

Emerging technologies are dramatically changing the landscape of innovation across all fields of industry. Pharma has lagged behind when it comes to adopting and implementing new technological advancements such as artificial intelligence or machine learning. This has provided an opening in the pharma space that tech companies are looking to fill.  Apple, Intel and Google have all recently made large investments buying up AI startups. And while none of them have experience in drug development they are all aggressively positioning themselves to enter the healthcare marketspace.  Silicon Valley is accustomed to rapidly innovating and embracing new technologies and could very well surpass traditional pharma to disrupt the whole industry.

In many ways the pharma industry is stuck in its model of discovery and development. The costs and pressures to create successful drugs often leads to failed trials that run for too long. But it’s the “one size fits all” approach to drug prescription works for them. An approved drug may only benefit 10 percent of the patients, yet it is prescribed to the entire patient populations, and it is reimbursed by health plans irrespective of its actual clinical benefit.  Precision medicine allows more efficient delivery but also reduces the potential market size for that drug and, to a risk averse big pharma, this looks like bad business. The cumulative benefits of leveraging new technologies such as Molecularly Informed Therapeutics in drug development will outweigh the costs and will elevate those companies willing to take the risks and disrupt the status quo.

It begins with discovery. Instead of the traditional hypothesis and chemical library based approaches to drug discovery we need to study the biology of disease in an agnostic way and let the patient biology guide discovery, a “back to biology” approach. By collecting data from both healthy and diseased biological samples using high throughput multi-omic mass spectrometers we can build a massive data set of patient biology at the molecular level. By combining this data with genomic and patient records we can analyze the data using artificial intelligence algorithms. In this analysis we can interrogate the differences between the healthy and diseased states to discover key biomarkers to investigate allowing us to skip the chemical screening process reducing costs and time in the discovery process.

It continues with development. This combination of molecular systems biology with a focus on the phenome and machine learning technology is key to driving a new model of drug development. This platform not only allows for faster discovery, but when used in clinical trials can help stratify the patient population through clinical diagnostics to allow for the selection of patients that will respond to a treatment. This will help produce more successful trial results while also better defining the patient population that will benefit from the treatment.

It ends by helping the patient. The world of big business driven by the need for profits can lose sight of the goal of helping improve the lives of patients in need. But by disrupting the industry through these emerging technologies we can deliver treatments to patients in a precision way improving outcomes while also reducing the overall healthcare costs. This can all be done while still working within a sustainable business model. Companies that are willing to take these initial risks and implement these emerging technologies will realize these benefits by reducing the time and costs to develop drugs. While drugs developed may serve a smaller population the overall success rate of drug trials will improve and this increased efficiency will benefit the bottom line. Using prescriptive analytics derived from clinical data physicians will be able to determine the best treatment option for patients and reduce the overall costs that currently burden the system in hospital admissions due to toxic side effects or ineffective drug performance.

Our healthcare system is overburdened by the rising costs of drug development. As more and more patients are unable to afford treatments the current pharma models will no longer be sustainable. This is an industry overdue for disruption and the technology to do it is already here.

Niven R. Narain is co-founder and chief executive officer of Berg

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