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Unravelling a career thread: Innovating for R&D and accelerating access to new therapies

2 Jul 2021

In the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of contributing to the life science industry by covering some quite diverse yet frontline roles. I went from principal investigator scientist, leading a research programme on neurodegenerative diseases, to pharmaceutical consulting, as a manager at the UK Deloitte Centre for Health Solution and now, as a research director at DT Consulting, an Indegene company. All these positions have a common thread that has substantiated and shaped my career path: applying innovation to speed up drug development for improving access to new medicines.

My initial interest in life science innovation stemmed from my postdoctoral research at the Medical Research Council in London. We were developing an innovative automated cell-based assay for detecting the infectious agent of prion diseases. The research held the promise of being a novel high-throughput tool for drug discovery and diagnosis. What made it significant was that, at that time, teaching a robot how to manipulate living cells without compromising viability was an unprecedented challenge. No tailored scripts were available to us. However, our approach was successful and was awarded with a national UK research prize.

ow, automation methods for drug discovery are far more advanced and the high throughput of even complex cell assays is quite straightforward. What we are seeing now is how digital technologies, including big data, automation and AI tools, are increasingly disrupting biopharma R&D processes. Just a few weeks ago, an AI-designed drug entered clinical trials for the second time ever. The new cancer immunotherapy is being tested as a treatment for adult patients with advanced solid tumours and was approved for human testing only after 8 months of discovery phase.[i] That is an 85% time reduction compared to standard preclinical processes and at considerably lower costs! And of course, with COVID-19 vaccines, we have witnessed something amazing; development began in March 2020 and the first FDA approval came in November 2020. It was tested in 6 months! We are seeing a time reduction of at least 70%. The lesson learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic was that with everything going wrong, something good can still emerge. It accelerated the pace of drug discovery to approval in an unprecedented way.

DT Consulting and Indegene provide me the unique opportunity to leverage my scientific background and R&D experience to work on what I consider one of the most urgent challenges of the industry: connecting pharma with their customers, something that is lacking now but is essential to the progress of the sector.

Clinical research will not thrive without better communication channels and better participant experience. Clinical trials are rarely successful, leading to new drug approvals only in 10% of the cases. Although this is largely due to the lack of accuracy of the preclinical process on safety and efficacy of drugs, many trials also fail to reasons related to poor patients recruitment and experience. By taking the point of view of patients, pharma companies have a lot to gain. This is an area that is in an urgent need of innovation, and digital tools have the potential to transform it at large.

The challenge lies in the fact that historically pharma companies never had to compete in the way they are now, where they had no need to build and connect with customers, now they face a lot of competition. Drugs are no longer blockbuster and the future of pharma companies depends on personalised medicine approaches. Besides this, pharma companies tend to have rigid and traditional structures and are heavily regulated. It is hard for them to be agile and change their operating models to connect with customers easily.

We conducted a survey to measure the level of digital adoption in currently recruiting clinical trial sites. Of the 261 sites who responded to the survey (corresponding to a 6% of actively recruiting clinical trials globally), a staggering 43% reporting that they do not use digital tools to support clinical trials, with no significant difference before and after the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 (see Figure 1). Of those that use digital tools, only 13% uses digital tools to support clinical trial processes not related to patients.

Figure 1

Evidently, pharma companies should encourage a shift in mindset towards digital approaches, which are still not applied at scale in clinical research. With the industry now moving towards decentralised trials, we are trying to understand better the key digital capabilities needed to transform the processes and how we can integrate digital technologies into traditional models in an agile way.

At DT Consulting, our work begins by assessing where each client is at in their digital journey. This is a crucial starting point for us. Our goal is to work with them to reach a level of digital maturity that could deliver a level of excellence, which is measurable in terms of customer experience and we need to act fast because patients need support and personalised approaches more than ever before.

Please do message me if you would like to know more about my work. I am also building my team and if you are looking to enable #FutureReadyHealthcare, then this may be the right place for you.


Francesca Properzi
Francesca Properzi