Big pharma and even bigger data

By Richard Coxon
Richard Coxon, Director of Life Sciences at Dassault Systèmes, explains the benefits of virtual clinical trials to the pharma sector

There is no denying the COVID-19 pandemic created profound disruptions across communities, patients and clinicians. Entire labs, hospitals and clinical sites had to shut overnight, with researchers working tirelessly for months to discover potential vaccine candidates and roll them out in mere months.

While there is still much uncertainty about the future of clinical trials in a post-pandemic world, the changes that the pharmaceutical sector was forced to take in response to the pandemic have offered new possibilities for reimagining the way the industry operates in the future. 

The age of virtual clinical trials

Following the WHO’s first announcement that COVID-19 was a pandemic, governments all over the world took drastic steps to keep people from catching COVID-19, starting with months-long lockdowns. While this did wonders to limit the spread of the disease, it meant that the way we run clinical trials had to change overnight. 

For many, the pandemic was a time of reckoning that standard processes were no longer suitable.  The life sciences sector found that the tools and technologies it relied on for clinical trials simply were not fit for purpose in a digital-first world – and brought to the fore a need for a radical change in the way clinical trials are handled.

In a recent survey, we asked the life sciences industry how COVID-19 impacted its ways of working. The results show it’s a small miracle the sector managed to create and test so many vaccine candidates in such a short time: 70% of companies admitted that outdated processes prevented them from collaborating remotely during the pandemic.

More challenging still, 62% even struggled to access valuable COVID-19 research due to these processes. This has led to a radical change in the process of clinical trials. According to our recent survey, 84% of life sciences companies in the UK have accelerated their adoption of digital tools for clinical trials. 

With the support of digital tools, the industry has shown that it can host successful - yet hybrid or completely virtual - clinical trials to create vaccines that could treat millions of patients in record timeframes. The adoption of virtual clinical trials has also enabled labs to go through a synthetic control process, using historical clinical data, instead of waiting to accumulate reams of findings before submitting their drug candidate for approval.

By adopting a digital approach to clinical trials, the life sciences sector has shown that it can operate much faster, reduce the margins for errors and improve the testing process both for researchers and patients. This new approach effectively solves one of the biggest challenges in the pharmaceutical industry: bringing new and effective  treatments to patients as soon as possible.  

Virtual twins are the key

For companies who consider improving patient outcomes as their main priority, having the right tools is critical. This is why 72% of companies have implemented digital tools such as virtual twin technology to help them innovate during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Using new digital tools such as virtual twins, labs can use data to create models ahead of clinical trials to better assess the potential effects of drug candidates on patients. This allows researchers to reduce their reliance on control groups and instead use modelling to identify the risks and results that a drug candidate could have on patients with a curable condition. The use of virtual twin technology within clinical trials have been designed with three objectives in mind:

  • Simplifying the R&D process: R&D teams had to reprioritise new research in the wake of the pandemic. Using virtual twin technology enables labs and research teams to create virtual models of anything – from a molecule to a medical device – to test out efficacy and accuracy in the virtual world. By operating in  a digital environment, the platforms also help reduce the risks of human errors in data input and allow correcting any anomalies much faster.
  • Reducing the need for placebo groups: Virtual twins allow researchers to gather huge volumes of data and turn them into models of organs, and in the future, create a complete model of a patient. In doing so, they can test out how a potential treatment would impact a patient with a specific condition.
  • Speeding up information sharing and controls: Since all the data lives in a centralised, highly secured digital platform, it is much easier to share it with relevant parties whilst managing authorisations and ensuring patient privacy.

Over the past few months, these new tools have been used to help drive R&D for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. As new variants appear, these digital models will enable researchers to identify new ways to prevent the disease from spreading further and to cure patients. 

That said, research into COVID-19 is only one of the challenges the industry has to solve. Due to the breadth of the pandemic, more than two thirds of life sciences companies had to put research into other treatments on hold. As the COVID vaccine rollout programme continues and patients start getting boosters to fend off the Delta variant, the industry needs to start looking beyond COVID-19.

The pandemic showed that the life sciences sector could adapt to a radical change in operations, improving collaboration across teams and organisations and speeding up the entire clinical trial process. Luckily, the same tools that have enabled the industry to tackle one of the biggest public health crises of the 21st century can also be used to devise treatments for lesser-known diseases.

Virtual twin technology provides the level of transparency that is critical to the future of the life sciences industry - from drug discovery to launching medical devices and providing the right kind of patient care in any environment.

Using better data management tools can help healthcare companies become more diverse and adaptable, enabling them to open up the process of clinical trials to a broader range of participants that are more representative of the patient population. This will result in treatments that are more inclusive and better serve specific patients' needs. Now it’s time to use the learnings from the pandemic to start normalising the process of virtual clinical trials for any condition – and ushering in a new era of preventative care for all.


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