We may not naturally connect the pharmaceuticals industry with the latest ‘technology’ in the world. Biotech, yes, but digital technology? Not so much. But AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish pharma giant headquartered in Cambridge that is one of the UK’s biggest companies, is planning its long term growth strategy around new digital tech. Sophisticated new digital technology strategies will form the core of a fresh ‘outcomes-based pricing model’ AstraZeneca believes will offer it a significant competitive edge over coming years.
AstraZeneca’s digital approach is to be founded upon the integration of big data and machine learning AI with an ecosystem of itself as a drugs developer and manufacturer, insurers (or the NHS in the specific case of the UK) and those providing healthcare such as doctors, clinics and hospitals. Richard Dearden, a former NASA artificial intelligence expert who worked on the Mars Rover project has been hired to spearhead the strategy.
The use of machine learning, which is a sophisticated branch of AI that looks for patterns in large data sets that would be far more difficult for human eyes to spot, drawing conclusions from them. One of its most prospective applications is in medical data and particularly personalised medication such as drugs and combinations of treatment that target particular genetic profiles.
AstraZeneca hopes that its development and application of machine learning technology under Mr Dearden will help to significantly speed up clinical trials of new drugs it is working on. Dead ends should be able to be detected much earlier, allowing R&D efforts to be discontinued and focused elsewhere. Positive evidence on the qualities of any new drugs under development should also be easier to pinpoint with machine learning analysing data. As well as suggesting the initial direction of R&D.
The entire pharmaceuticals industry is investing in machine learning within the context of clinical trials. However, AstraZeneca has much broader ambitions. The company wants to build a digital data ecosystem that connects all the stakeholders in the treatment chain – patient, pharmaceuticals company, payer (insurer, NHS etc.) and treatment prescriber/provider (doctor, clinic, hospital). It hopes this will allow it to address the increased scrutiny on the cost of drugs and the value for money they offer.
Chief executive Pascal Soriot commented that AstraZeneca’s ambition is to build:
“a world of partnerships with small companies, digital companies that have tools that enable us to do these kind of things . . . so you have to partner with hospitals, with payers. It’s not a world where everybody can stay in their little camp and do their work, it’s a world where everybody has to come together to manage those costs.”
The idea is that a digital system connecting all of these stakeholders would combine data that shows the real value of pharmaceuticals purchased. If, for example, a heart disease treatment drug was bought by the NHS the price paid would be attached to real world results. If the number of patients taking the drug who then had a heart attack, or a second heart attack, which costs a huge amount to treat, AstraZenica would be liable for a rebate.
However, for effectiveness to be measured reliably, several different data points would have to be combined. If that’s achieved, AstraZenica’s competitive advantage would be the buyers of its drugs having the safety net of a partial refund if subsequent evidence showed them to be ineffective.