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In Focus: Pharma Ramps Up Pursuits in Digital Technology

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In the recent past, most Big Pharma companies used digital heath technology (DHT) on a project-by-project basis, or perhaps dedicated a division where it would house those standalone projects. If there were thoughts to infuse digital technologies permanently into various business areas, or perhaps into the company’s overall game plan, they remained just that. Last year, McKinsey & Co. likened pharma’s involvement in digital technology to “fits and starts.”1

Today, in various iterations, these thoughts are materializing. From Sanofi’s head-to-toe immersion into digital; to AstraZeneca’s2 new business arm that will focus on making clinical trials more efficient; to Pfizer’s new digital center3 that will support its own projects worldwide; to Regeneron’s new digital biomarkers lab, where wearable devices and non-contact sensors are designed and verified, large pharma are investing in digital to reach business goals, be they through internal investments or strategic partnerships. The McKinsey report said the top five pharma manufacturers had made more than 50 investments in digital health organizations and made twice that amount in partnerships since the early 2020s.

Companies that have accrued “large-scale transformational change from their digital and analytics investments have shifted to product- and platform-oriented operating models,” according to McKinsey. “This reallocation of resources empowers … autonomous teams to work continuously toward specific overarching goals rather than individual products,” the report states.

Perhaps a sign of how serious pharma is taking the use of digital tech in progressing research and, hence, treatment—it is a topic in the precompetitive space. Regeneron is hosting its second Digital Biomarker Summit this spring, and the PhRMA Foundation sponsored a contest for academic researchers to design equity-based technologies capable of clinical application. Two $500,000 grants await two winners. Amy M. Miller, PhD, PhRMA Foundation president, says the foundation’s purpose is to identify areas where gaps in research, and hence, treatment, exist.

Rinol Alaj, senior director, digital health technologies, Regeneron, said in an email that “the intention behind the Digital Biomarker Summit USA is to help the industry work together to help regulators, sponsors, healthcare professionals, and patients have confidence in the validity of digital biomarkers and understand and appreciate how they can make trials more efficient, cost-effective, and objective.”

At Sanofi, says Kaoutar Sghiouer, PhD, the company’s global head of data and artificial intelligence (AI), the use of digital technologies is incorporated from “discovery to therapy,” with involvement rangingfrom day-to-day administrative tasks, to research and product development, to regulatory filings and marketing. At the moment, Sanofi is using AI in a mixed marketing model to ascertain how and where patients in the US are learning about its products, and where there are gaps. “We have new decisions on how to reallocate our budgets and our targets, where patients do not have access to information,” says Sghiouer.

Sanofi has no plans to share or sell any of its devised new technologies, unlike AstraZeneca, whose new company, Evinova, will look for contract research organizations (CROs) and biotechs interested in its products.

“We will develop [technologies] inside, or [get from the] outside, if it makes sense,” says Sghiouer.

In other developments:

  • Roche’s unit, Roche Tissue Diagnostics, will collaborate with PathAI to create AI-enabled companion diagnostics for the biopharma market.4
  • Biogen, which closed its two-year-old digital technology division last year, announced in February that it will partner with Aptar Digital Health to develop digital health solutions for neurological and rare diseases.5
  • Koneksa Health, which is in the digital biomarker identification business, announced recently that Merck will join its study, now recruiting, that is looking for digital biomarkers in neurodegenerative disorders, mainly Parkinson’s disease. Patients will use smart phones and other wearable technologies for monitoring purposes.6

Koneksa’s CEO Chris Benko agreed that pharma companies are infusing digital technology into their business plans in many different ways. Benko says a drug manufacturer makes these decisions based on what’s in the existing market and if the company wants to achieve scale, which is necessary, he says, for success. Regardless of whether the organization owns the technology or goes outside for it, they must build to scale.

For Regeneron’s upcoming summit, AbbVie, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Takeda are all slated to attend. Benko is moderating a panel. Unlike at other conferences, speakers don’t have to pay to play, he says.

What is little understood by traditional pharma folks, adds Benko, is that the same amount of work that goes into validating a genomic or imaging marker must go into validation of a digital biomarker. “With COVID-19, the use of wearables and telemedicine was reactionary, and necessarily so,” he says. “Now everyone is looking for tools they can use thoughtfully.”

Christine Bahls is a Freelance Writer for Medical, Clinical Trials, and Pharma Information

References

1. Rewired Pharma Companies will Win in the Digital Age. McKinsey & Company. June 12, 2023. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/life-sciences/our-insights/rewired-pharma-companies-will-win-in-the-digital-age

2. AstraZeneca Creates Digital Health Unit, with Big-Name Partnerships Already in Place. BioPharma Dive. November 20, 2023. https://www.biopharmadive.com/news/astrazeneca-creates-digital-health-unit-with-big-name-partnerships-already/700330/

3. Pfizer’s Center for Digital Innovation. Pfizer. https://centerfordigitalinnovation.pfizer.com/#:~:text=For%20this%20reason%2C%20CDI%20is,stage%20of%20research%2C%20development%20and

4. Roche Enters into Collaboration Agreement with PathAI to Expand Digital Pathology Capabilities for Companion Diagnostics. PR Newswire. February 13, 2024. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/roche-enters-into-collaboration-agreement-with-pathai-to-expand-digital-pathology-capabilities-for-companion-diagnostics-302060069.html

5. Aptar Signs Enterprise Agreement with Biogen to Operate and Develop Digital Health Solutions. Aptar. February 9, 2024. https://aptar.com/news-events/aptar-signs-enterprise-agreement-with-biogen-to-operate-and-develop-digital-health-solutions/

6. Koneksa Announces Merck Joins Data Syndication Partnership Program Around Parkinson’s Digital Biomarkers Observational Study. Business Wire. March 20, 2024. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20240320838997/en/Koneksa-Announces-Merck-Joins-Data-Syndication-Partnership-Program-Around-Parkinson%E2%80%99s-Digital-Biomarkers-Observational-Study