2018 has been a banner year for big pharma companies to re-focus on scientific innovation, with several companies making major investments in technology to advance the promise of personalized medicine. Take for example Roche’s acquisition (in February) of Flatiron Health – which provides almost real-time oncology patient data drawn from a network of cancer centers – for a whopping $1.9 billion. Additionally, Novartis has struck deals with numerous startups that seek to accelerate or improve treatment of various diseases, such as its collaboration with Pear Therapeutics to develop apps that may help people with schizophrenia or multiple sclerosis (MS).
Upon becoming CEO of Novartis on February 1, 2018, Vas Narasimhan launched the “reimagine medicine” initiative, which is essentially a new vision for the company as well as a call to action for the industry as a whole. The “reimagine medicine” vision permeated Narasimhan’s subsequent public announcements. For example, in a speech at the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) conference in New York in November, Narasimhan laid out ways to reimagine “our trust with society” to help tackle global health challenges, saying society will judge pharma by its actions and not its words, “which is fair enough.”
A similar theme was also central to an article in Project Syndicate magazine (October 2018) entitled, “The Global Promise of Digital Health.” The article, by Ann Aerts and Harald Nusser, addressed how digital technology can help meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for public health. In one example, the authors pointed out that the Broadband Commercial Working Group on Digital Health, co-chaired by the Novartis Foundation, is focusing on how technology can improve care for individuals with noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). “The goal,” they observed, “is to offer pragmatic advice to policymakers and other stakeholders to help them reimagine the way digital health can address NCDs.”
The Aerts and Nusser article underscores how we are living in exciting times, with new technology enabling us to truly reimagine medicine on a global scale. Nevertheless, “digital technology is only valuable if it is being used to improve how systems function,” they caution.
That lesson is not lost on drug companies, many of which are constantly looking for and acquiring apps and software platforms to improve their clinical trials and identify ways to deliver existing drugs in new ways, often based on newly discovered pathways or biomarkers. Artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities enable us to gather and compute information faster than ever before, but many companies are still not doing the necessary due diligence to design and conduct smarter trials. As a result, many trials are delayed or misdirected, making patients wait even longer for new and better therapies.
It takes a combination of human and artificial intelligence to streamline clinical development processes. That is our approach at Phesi, where we use our massive clinical trial database and predictive analytics platform to help pinpoint the right target indication, design the right trial protocol, and select the right investigator sites. But the final decision on where and how to conduct a trial still rests with the sponsor; while our unique combination of AI and human intelligence yields actionable insights and recommendations, the sponsor retains the ultimate decision-making authority.
In our quest to reimagine clinical trials, we are leveraging the promise of digital health to get good therapies to patients faster (smarter trials = faster cures). As we head into a new year, we are excited to see how new technology will continue to deliver on this promise, but we are aware that the information derived from AI algorithms is only valuable when it’s in the right hands. Ultimately, only human actions, not words, can deliver better patient care.