Opinion: Fresh frontiers of pharmaceutical innovation

pharmacists

By Sri Lanka Chamber of Pharmaceutical Industry

For centuries, human beings have waged a relentless battle against a litany of diseases that have ravaged countless generations. From early influenza epidemics that decimated towns and villages to devastating pandemics such as the Black Death and AIDS, illness has stood as an eternal adversary to human wellbeing and progress. Paradoxically, mankind’s bid to conquer this foe through its relentless pursuit of viable cures to all manner of ailments has yielded some of the greatest strides in human innovation and development.

Today, the field of medicine finds itself in the midst of rapid evolution made possible through seismic shifts in technology and pathology. Medicines are now being developed that not only successfully contain or neutralise diseases once viewed as untreatable but that also generate fewer side effects.

The process involved in producing such drugs is long and meticulous. Their manufacture can take years of rigorous clinical research and development. Afterwards, they are subjected to further intensive testing and refinement in order to ensure that the new medical device or medicine meets accepted standards of quality, safety and efficacy.

Oftentimes, despite years of research and testing, a sizable number of molecules are ruled unfit for use as medication due to limited benefits, unexpected side effects and other challenges. This fact reflects the stringent nature of these quality and safety controls.

Additionally, it bears testament to the significant investment of resources made by the global pharmaceutical industry in research and development for new drugs. A quick glance at the financial information of multiple pharmaceutical companies will reveal that on average these firms spend 17% of their total budgets on R&D, with some of them overshooting this figure by a considerable margin. Meanwhile, the R&D-to-marketplace cost of new medicine for several leading multinational pharmaceutical corporations rests in the region of billions of dollars.    

Moreover, pharmaceutical industry costs are further compounded by the need to create new drugs which improve upon pre-existing treatments.

Digital innovation

All of this investment has yielded a sizable surge in pharmaceutical innovation. Much of this change has hinged on the exciting new medical frontiers which the digital age has opened up.

These technological advancements, paired with leaps in biotechnology, have produced a multitude of novel treatment tools. Chief among them is precision medicine, a field of study which binds clinical and molecular information to decipher the biological basis for disease. This information is extracted by transforming DNA into data through the procedure of gene sequencing. Once retrieved, the data is used to highlight specific gene abnormalities or biomarkers to gauge the effectiveness and side effects of a certain drug.

Artificial intelligence is also playing a crucial role in data processing and analysis, equipping the pharmaceutical industry with a viable means of interpreting reams of scientific information to assist in drug development.

In addition, revolutionary growth in smartphone technology over the past decade has also opened up previously uncharted avenues of medical treatment. Just as medical institutions are using smartphones as conduits to connect with patients, the pharmaceutical industry is linking with the devices through an assortment of apps which track movements and record other vital measurements. These metrics can enable easier and more effective participation in post-market studies since they translate into a more accurate representation of the population due to the fact that a large number of people are contributing unskewed information.

Other path-breaking branches of pharmaceutical innovation include the use of nanotechnology and three-dimensional printing.

Currently, nanotechnology, which refers to the use of microscopic technology measuring between 1 and 100 nanometres, is used in the delivery of anti-cancer drugs and the reduction of toxicity by releasing nanoparticles into the bloodstream.

The rapid evolution of nanotechnology is also unveiling a host of further potential uses, including assessing whether patients are adhering to prescribed medication and the future possibility of internal surgery performed by nanobots.

In the realm of 3D printing, pharmaceutical companies are utilising this groundbreaking technology of computer-led construction of 3D objects to design drugs that act faster, deliver a higher dose, are easier to consume and cheaper to produce.

Social and economic impact

All these strides in pharmaceutical innovation, together with the refinement of current treatments and medical devices, have saved and improved countless lives as well as producing a global wave of social and economic benefit.

Indeed, the economic toll of disease is often overlooked in the final assessment of an epidemic or pandemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus which struck from 2013-2016 resulted in a cumulative loss of $ 2.2 billion in GDP for the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This loss dealt a severe blow to macroeconomic stability, food security, human capital development and private sector growth across the region.

This underscores the importance of pharmaceutical innovation in a developing nation such as Sri Lanka which is keen to trend positively across all of these economic indicators. Therefore recognising the importance of pharmaceutical innovation plays an invaluable role in not just delivering quality healthcare but also actively upgrading the overall welfare of all of society.