Digital revolution – not evolution – is the route to building back stronger after COVID-19

With a return to the workplace on the horizon for an increasing number of scientists, Richard Goodwin considers how COVID-19 will impact the ways research is conducted. One outcome he posits is the acceleration of the digital transformation that was already occurring in pharmaceutical R&D.

Pills and COVID-19

There has long been discussion about embracing digital solutions in support of our research. Not replacing scientists, but rather enabling researchers more access to data, insights and greater efficiency through digitisation and integrated analytics. A digital future was envisaged that would create opportunities to collaborate within our organisations and globally with our research partners. However, as often is the case, change has been incremental. Implementation costs often reduce uptake, capacity to enact change is not prioritised over continued delivery of current workload, and a belief that on-site and in-person is the ideal way to collaborate has persisted. People have talked about digital transformation and revolution, but in practice we are seeing gradual iterative evolution.

Then the catastrophe of COVID-19 struck. Across our industries, the immediate focus was accelerating research to save lives. Hopefully, the lessons learnt in the unprecedented rate of delivery can be enacted in future drug programmes. As we now slowly emerge from the pandemic, we are looking to build back stronger across R&D. For many sectors, this could be a tipping point for that digital revolution.

There has been a realisation that remote working is possible for other teams outside the traditional homeworking functions like IT. The flexibility this affords is empowering and builds a better work-life balance. However, we need to remember that data-driven pharmaceutical R&D is only successful in developing and launching medicines when delivered “by a village” of scientists. We are often at our most creative and impactful when interacting with people. We must recognise that causal connections and conversations often iron out project challenges before they become issues and the moments of random inspiration that come from bumping into colleagues. That said, one change that will hopefully last following the enforced use of video meetings is that business travel will focus on “value adding” rather than being the default for face‑to‑face meetings. For both environmental and productivity reasons, digital communication is here to stay.

COVID-19COVID-19 challenged those conducting critical clinical trials when clinical sites were under extreme pressures. This has shone a spotlight on the value played by digital transformation for patients and clinicians undergoing trials. We can expect to see accelerated efforts to shift to decentralisation, digital solutions, and artificial intelligence (AI)‑aided clinical trial and research. Digital solutions are also building resilience into other processes in the pre-clinical research environment. For example, within AstraZeneca, we recognised the risk associated with accessing and reviewing critical non‑clinical toxicology histopathology data generated at our partner contract research organisation (CRO) sites. We worked with our CRO partner and software vendor to perform regulatory compliant validation of the cloud-based imaging platform for digital toxicologic pathology study review – an industry first. This added both resilience to our current processes and presented the opportunity to accelerate future programmes. This is resulting in more data re-use and an ability to deploy AI-driven solutions, enabling us to unlock hidden data in every sample.

A final thought on the lasting impact of COVID-19 on pharmaceutical R&D concerns the disruption to the key collaborative academic research that helps power drug discovery. Predictions are that, because of the pandemic, lost medical research investment by 2027 could exceed £7.8 billion in the UK alone, mainly due to lost charity income. We cannot afford to fail to embrace our digital future. We need to unlock the hidden value in all the data we generate if we are to continue to accelerate the delivery of new medicines.

About the author 

Richard Goodwin is Head of Imaging & AI, Clinical Pharmacology & Safety Sciences at AstraZeneca. He leads a global team of imaging scientists that deliver expertise across the company using cutting-edge multidimensional imaging modalities. Richard derives project insight and impact by connecting safety and efficacy endpoints using advanced tissue histology, molecular imaging, in vivo PET, MRI and much more. He has published over 60 publications while at AstraZeneca on the development and deployment of new technology in support of the portfolio. Richard is also an Honorary Professor at the University of Glasgow.

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