In March, professional services and management consulting company Accenture announced that by investing in digital technologies, the UK pharmaceutical industry had the potential to unlock £22bn in value over the next decade, accelerating growth by 5% and generating around £12bn in new revenue, passing on cost savings of 10% directly to consumers.

Andrew Meade, managing director in Accenture Life Sciences supporting business transformation and innovation for multinational pharma companies, and Barry Heavey, managing director supporting multinational pharma and medical device companies transforming their operations, explain this figure, as well as Accenture’s projections for the pharma technology space.

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Elliot Gardner (EG): How has Accenture come up with the £22bn figure, and can you quantify it?

Andrew Mead (AM): At a very macro level the background to the number is very much connected to the digital world and the connected world. It’s about a smarter way of manufacturing, and the connectivity between manufacturing machines and the supply chain.

This can avoid a huge amount of wastage and downtime, and supply chains can be much more advanced than they would’ve been historically. As a consequence, the sector is much more efficient.

Machines being connected and talking to each other means they can tell us when they’re about to fail or when they need maintenance, they can tell us how to help them to be more efficient.

EG: Will the pharma industry need to invest heavily in this field in the coming years?

AM: Within pharma, there’s a huge recognition in the need to invest in new technology. Many companies are investing huge amounts of money in research and development (R&D) to get new products into the pipeline, but they all realise that in order to be successful going forward they’re going to have to develop much more agile manufacturing capabilities.

In my personal view, I think investment will be incredibly necessary, because as the customisation and proliferation of products becomes broader, if the industry doesn’t invest in systems to handle them, then what you’ll find is that the amount of inventory that companies will have to keep and hold is going to get out of control, and reach levels that aren’t practical or sustainable.

EG: What’s the most impactful area of technology development in pharma right now?

AM: What excites me at the moment is the whole space of genomics, genetic mapping, analytics, and quantum computing. When you take all those things together, you see an amazing opportunity to drive insights into the human condition and how to cure and handle diseases in a much more specific fashion than ever before.

I think the fact that you can customise medicine based upon the DNA profile of an individual is going to have a remarkable impact on what we can do for the human condition, and I think that’s really exciting.

I think for the patient, in particular, the ability to be informed is vital. Nowadays we’re unwilling to be blindly led down a course of particular treatment, we want to understand more, we want to understand how our bodies are performing, and I think the advent of digital and mobile has allowed this to happen.

Barry Heavey (BH): I would say the broader data analytics space is probably the most important topic. AI is at the extreme end of data analytics learning, but I think there’s still a lot of work to be done even at the less cutting edge end of analytics. It’s still under-utilised in the industry – especially in manufacturing.

The pharma industry, particularly in manufacturing, has traditionally been fairly heavily regulated, so it has been perhaps a little slower than other industries to gather data, so there’s huge potential for growth in this area.

Just 75 atoms made up the most successful drug in the world ten years ago, and today the most successful drug has 20,000 components. With that massive exponential growth comes complexity, and the industry has to be able to handle the data required to manufacture, quality control, and research and develop these products. That massive growth in complexity really requires analytics.

EG: Can technology improve the clinical trial process?

AM: We’re already seeing some companies begin to use genetic mapping to decide whether or not a patient is suitable for a trial, which helps provide deep insight into whether a trial is going to work up-front.

What amazes me about clinical trials to date is that we all know that the trial is about the patient and proving successful patient outcome, yet too often trials as they are constructed today are all about testing to see how the patient interacts with the new product – not thinking enough about actually the patient themselves and what this interaction means.

For every 100 patients that you recruit in a clinical trial, by the time the trial is over you’re typically left with about seven. And that’s because a lot of patients just opt of the trial. They get fed up and bored, or find them unduly cumbersome. With digital, with mobility, with all of these tools, if you use them properly you have a great way of keeping those patients for longer, getting a much richer dataset, and a much more satisfactory outcome.

EG: Can developments in the wearables sector lead to industry savings?

BH: I strongly believe it’s an area that has huge potential for development. Better collaboration between the medical device sector – which often has great innovation in areas like auto-injectors, pumps, inhalers – and the pharmaceutical sector going forward is vital.

I think they can work together to drive efficiencies and cost savings in production, but equally the use of wearables and smart devices to collect real-world data from the patient can save companies massively in terms of their R&D costs.

If a new medication is being trialled for say, rheumatoid arthritis, if the patient is carrying a device with them all the time, or they have a wearable device, and you can monitor how much that person is active while they have the drug versus when they have the placebo, that can be a marker for how well the drug is performing, as opposed to once every couple of months the patient turns up at the clinic saying ‘yes I think a little bit better with this drug’.

EG: Will investment in technology within the pharma industry result in cheaper treatment for the end consumer?

BH: I think there’s huge potential for cost savings for patients. You’re already seeing the increased use of data and better screening of patients, and better running of clinical trials, etc. This effectively leads to more efficient R&D, which leads to shorter innovation cycles. It’s quicker to develop a drug now – the average time has gone from ten years to three to four years. That shorter innovation cycle means there will be more competition, and more competition naturally means the consumer wins out.

Competition provides more choices and options. It’s just one way in which more efficient R&D through data can drive cost savings for patients, and more efficient data in manufacturing can help cope with those products getting more complex.

EG: How much quicker can we expect drug development to be with investments in new technologies?

AM: I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that. There’s definitely a need for a shake-up in terms of how some of the legislation works. One of the big things with the digital age is that we have the ability to create devices quite quickly, but quite often a device that’s digital in its nature, that isn’t invasive, can still be classified as a medical device, and some of the regulation around that can be quite cumbersome.

BH: What you see is the pace of change is happening faster in certain therapeutic areas than others. I mentioned cancer earlier; the vast majority of cancer drugs now are being fast-tracked by the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration], because the industry has a deep understanding of how cancer works. Regulators have reacted to that with confidence in the industry. I still think there are opportunities for further improvement, but in some areas, we are seeing vast improvements.