2020 was ‘the year our industry got it right’: pharma veteran

By Jenni Spinner

- Last updated on GMT

(metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images Plus)
(metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images Plus)

Related tags Saama Technologies Artificial intelligence Clinical trials Drug development Research COVID-19

William Carson says while the past year was full of challenges, embracing AI and other advanced technology led to impressive progress and opportunity.

When Saama Technologies appointed William Carson to its board of directors, they gained a seasoned industry professional with more than 20 years of experience under his belt. Currently chair of the board for Otsuka Pharmaceutical Development & Commercialization (OPDC), Carson has overseen R&D in a number of therapeutic areas, developed a track record of successful clinical development, and worked with global authorities on important regulatory matters.

Outsourcing-Pharma (OSP) recently connected with Carson (WC) to discuss the developments of 2020, what might lie ahead, and what industry professionals should know in order to succeed in the coming year.

OSP: You’ve been in the industry for more than two decades. How does 2020 measure up to the rest of the years you’ve been here?

WC: It goes without saying that 2020 has been unlike any other year in our industry’s history, let alone my career.

I like to look at 2020 as the year our industry got it right and advanced by leaps and bounds to accelerate drug research by finally embracing previously largely untapped AI-powered cognitive workflow platforms for managing clinical programs end-to-end as replacement to traditional laborious, erroneous, voluminous efforts. Doing so enabled more effective collaboration, faster decision making, and accelerated drug development – all while minimizing pandemic-related risk to the brilliant men and women who devote their lives to drug discovery and development.

Science and technology came together this year in a manner not seen to date, enabling technology to accelerate scientific research and discovery.

OSP: Could you please talk about what you feel are the most notable developments in drug development and research over the past year?

William Carson, chair of the board, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Development and Commercialization

WC: Undoubtedly it is the speed at which companies like Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, Regeneron, etc. have marshalled their experts and resources to develop the unique new therapies to prevent and treat COVID-19.

By leveraging AI-powered technology platforms, like Saama’s Life Science Analytics Cloud, companies fighting COVID-19 achieved actionable R&D insights that were previously unattainable – a critical and game-changing distinction during the pandemic.  As a result, and in record time, we are on the verge of making therapies to prevent and treat the novel coronavirus available to humanity.

OSP: Let’s talk data and analytics—how has the use of and understanding of health data in drug development evolved in recent years, and what do you think might occur in the near future?

WC: Companies like Saama have ushered in a new era of drug development via AI-powered technology platforms, the likes of which were unimaginable just a few years ago. Now it’s up to industry to embrace these visionary solutions and tools and apply the technology and data that is at-hand so we are fully prepared to optimize this fourth Industrial Revolution in which we find ourselves.

While that is in progress we must also keep our eyes on the horizon for the next wave of digital innovation that companies like Saama will deliver and be prepared to activate without delay novel technologies like intelligent verticalized cloud solutions. Many other industries have already successfully embraced AI to transform their outcomes and now is the time for the life sciences industry to do the same.

OSP: In what specific ways did the COVID-19 pandemic impact the clinical research and drug development field?

WC: Because the pandemic is unlike anything we have seen in recent history we were at first challenged in our response and finding the best way to proceed. It quickly became apparent that conventional clinical research efforts would not yield a solution to COVID-19. No doubt there were a few missed opportunities, but the industry rallied.

We turned missed opportunities into key learnings and used that as our advantage. In a way, COVID-19 brought our industry into the 21st century in a manner it had not experienced to date. The best scientific minds of the life science industry began collaborating with the best engineering minds, such as those at Saama, and together they set a new bar for drug development speed and effectiveness.

OSP: Please take a moment to gaze into your crystal ball, and tell us what you think the key things pharma firms and their research and development partners should know, or what skills should they have, to be ready for 2021.

WC: The strategy our industry should take in 2021 can best be summed up by paraphrasing Klaus Schwab, author of Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution​: We must think about how technology can create an impact by design, not by default.

Strategically and proactively adopting state-of-the art AI-enabled technology will enable us to sustain the unprecedented R&D momentum we achieved in 2020. Had we adopted a similar digital approach to drug discovery years ago we would have realized the efficiencies we came to this year much sooner.

Unfortunately, it took a pandemic to get the majority of our industry to embrace technology to accelerate drug discovery. Now we need to continue the charge forward, not drop the ball and slide backwards.

OSP: Can you tell us of any specific goals or plans Saama has in its sights for 2021?

WC: Saama will leverage the fresh, top-of-mind memories from our company and the industry’s 2020 experiences to inform its path in the new year, all while prioritizing the patients who are waiting for our industry to lead them out of the pandemic.

Saama will continue to partner with the leaders of the pharma industry and work in collaboration as they think deeper and more broadly about ways to positively transform the industry, and it will continue to lead the industry in an effort to have the clinical development process directed and informed by technology.

OSP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

WC: I challenge the industry to seriously consider how we can accelerate the drug development process over the next decade? It takes a village to do this.

We need to bring in all of the stakeholders, including patients, advocacy groups, drug manufacturers, and technology companies, to apply tech’s version of Moore’s Law. Doing so over the next decade will enable us to create cost effective treatments for many more human illnesses that have not been fully addressed so far.

We must cover the population’s health. More cost-effective drug development enables pharma companies to serve smaller patient populations with illnesses that are not mainstream, thereby improving everyone’s well-being.

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