IT at heart of future drug industry, claims IBM

Related tags Drug development Pharmaceutical companies Pharmacology Drug discovery

Computer giant IBM claims to have identified seven key technologies
that will drive innovation in the pharmaceutical industry over the
next decade, raise the quality of development and manufacturing
processes and slash the pre-launch development costs of new drugs,
reports Phil Taylor.

And companies which are slow in embracing these advances will lose out to their more forward-thinking rivals, it maintains.

IBM's Business Consulting Services (BCS) unit forecasts that these seven technologies will help the industry cut drug development costs to as little as $200 million (€169m) - around a quarter of the current average cost per drug of $802 million, quoted by the Tufts Center for the Study Drug Development.

In addition, it suggests that these technologies could cut average lead times from 12-14 years to between 3-5 years, an enticing claim given that numerous studies including one from Tufts have identified the development time for a new medicine as the key factor holding back R&D productivity in the industry.

The report, Pharma 2010: Silicon Reality​, claims that information technologies (IT) will be the spur that shifts pharmaceutical companies away from the 'one-size fits-all' model of drug development - in which a medicine is fitted to a disease - to a more targeted approach that will see patients separated according to a specific pathogenetic profile and be offered a panoply of diagnostics, drugs, devices and services to manage their illness.

Power up

Unsurprisingly, IBM ranks new supercomputers running at extremely high processing speeds (petaflop) and grid computing (in which thousands of PCs are joined together to make use of idle processing power) at number one.

"By 2006, a new generation of petaflop computers, including IBM's Blue Gene, will enable large-scale biomolecular simulations, such as protein-folding studies,"​ according to the report. Meanwhile, grid computing will enable companies to undertake such tasks as screening for DNA sequence matches, and analysing sales and marketing data in real-time.

Several research grids have already been set up, one such example being the Smallpox Research Grid, which has screened​ 35 million drug candidates with processing power provided by two million PCs from volunteers around the world.

New model

Second on the list is predictive biosimulation or the use of computer-generated models to simulate how a biological system works as a whole. This is enabling pharmaceutical companies to significantly reduce the number of wet lab experiments required to identify possible drug targets. So-called 'in silico​' modelling also allows researchers to predict the effects of drugs on the human body, including their efficacy and safety.

Various academic institutions are building computational models, including Indiana University's Center for Cell and Virus Theory, which is exploring how cells react to chemical disturbances, notes the report.

Patient interaction

Miniaturised individual tracking devices, mobile telecommunications, and wireless technologies are already taking hold in other industries and will transform drug development and healthcare delivery by facilitating the transmission and collection of biological data on a real-time basis outside a clinical setting. This 'pervasive computing' can be used to monitor patients and manage their health and to test new drugs in different ways.

Several firms - including Philips Medical - are designing intelligent biomedical clothing. For example, Philips offering is a wearable, wireless monitoring system that can warn patients with underlying health problems, assist clinicians in the diagnosis and monitoring of patients at risk, and automatically alert emergency services in the event of and acute medical event. Meanwhile, Bang & Olufsen has devised an intelligent pill container that reminds patients when to take their medicine.

Communicating labels

Smart tags or radio frequency identification (RFID) tags [for's special report on this technology click here​] enable physical objects to be identified at any point during manufacturing and distribution using a wireless system.

"RFID will play a key role in eliminating typically slow and inefficient manufacturing processes, helping pharmaceutical companies to prepare for a future with greater numbers of more complex products produced in smaller quantities,"​ according to the IBM report. It will also help companies to satisfy the increasing demands of regulatory compliance by enabling the monitoring of pharmaceutical products at all points in the supply chain, and could allow more innovative healthcare delivery, for example matching the patient to the medicine and avoiding prescribing errors.

Storage capacity

Improvements in the way data is stored an managed will be crucial to maintain the vast quantities of data generated, particularly as technologies such as RFID take off. New storage servers, virtual storage grids and integrated record management and archiving systems will help the industry comply with the increasingly tough requirements imposed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other regulators, predicts the report.

Process control

On the manufacturing side, the shift towards in process analytical technology (PAT) - allowing companies to monitor their manufacturing processes continuously and automatically in real time, rather than intermittently and historically via samples and post-manufacturing quality controls - will gain momentum.

PAT improves manufacturing quality and saves money, because it is cheaper to adjust a production line immediately than to discard goods that have fallen outside the agreed tolerances. IBM suggests that the FDA's new rules on Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) will be a significant driving force for the adoption and investment in PAT.

Data mining

Finally, the report cites the use of the Internet, but more specifically the tools used to mine and analyse data from the global network. A new generation of data and text mining tools will enable pharmaceutical companies to quickly and efficiently draw meaning from huge quantities of research, marketing and patient data.

Web-mining will help the industry conduct research, select potential targets for further study, identify trends, perform more active pharmacovigilance, anticipate potential crises and gain better patient insights, according to IBM.

The report notes that today the pharmaceutical industry spends circa $20 billion a year on IT, but rarely reaps the full rewards of the investment.

"Companies devote most of their IT resources to technologies that cut costs such as supply chain, transaction processing and support services - many of which are increasingly becoming outsourced to external providers."​Steve Arlington, global pharmaceutical industry leader at BCS, said the new technologies will enable the drug industry to fundamentally change the way it does business. "But companies that fail to respond to the market conditions that are now emerging will see their shareholder value continue to plummet,"​ he warned.

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