Is the UK leading the way in med tech and innovation?

Disrupting pharma – Necessity is the mother of innovation

In a data-driven future of efficient, personalised healthcare, the only limitations will be the intelligence of our ideas and our ability to take the public with us.

A “perfect storm” of system crisis and technological advances has created a flurry of innovation, and knowledge from other sectors is promising to create smarter, more efficient ways to provide healthcare.

But the potential new dawn of personalised, remote medicine and all the associated improvements in outcomes is heavily reliant on data – and the sector proving it is responsible enough to crunch it. Dr Stuart Battersby, Chief Technology Officer at Chatterbox Labs, says that harnessing data and new technologies presents industry with challenges: “New technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, really have the potential to unlock valuable insights that can improve patient care and accelerate outcomes.

“However, this data is sensitive and highly confidential. This often means it’s challenging for organisations to really get their teeth into using these new technologies.”

UK as innovation HQ

Hassan Chaudhury, Director and Co-founder at HealthIQ, is also a medical technology (med tech) specialist for the Department of International Trade so has a front-row seat for observing the country’s challenges to and opportunities for innovation.

He says that the UK is leading the way in many areas of med tech, including genomics and artificial intelligence, because of its need to drive efficiency and its unique access to an information gold mine.

“While the NHS is not commercial, our priorities mean we have to think as though we were. If we had a bloated, lazy healthcare system, we wouldn’t be trying to do things better, but we really need to think about how we make the best of our resources.

“We have cradle-to-grave, longitudinal data. No country in the world can do what we can do with that data,” he said.

Organisations have been collecting data for years, but as disruption in healthcare depends on the ability to safely repurpose knowledge from other sectors, it has tended to lag behind.

Paradigm shift

The paradigm is shifting, however, as non-healthcare businesses, including big names such as Amazon, Google and Samsung, move into the space.

A recently published mergers and acquisitions (M&A) report from technology M&A advisory firm Hampleton Partners painted a picture of a busy and buoyant marketplace.

Jonathan Simnett, a Director with the firm, told Pharmafield: “The one thing that really stood out was the rapid rate of change in healthcare systems. M&A is the new R&D. Companies can’t innovate quick enough, so they have to go and buy companies that have spotted new areas to innovate in.

“Everyone is piling into healthcare. Amazon has bought PillPack. Apple is investing heavily and has said that healthcare will be its major market going forward.”

The push is being driven by the fact that companies understand that they have the knowledge and ability to solve some of the biggest problems facing healthcare systems globally.

“Healthcare systems, certainly in the developing world, are struggling to cope with the same issues: ageing populations, a rise in lifestyle conditions, and increasing patient expectations,” explained Jonathan.

“All of these come together to produce spiralling costs, and the costs of healthcare are running ahead of anything else in the economy. People are looking to technology to reduce costs and bring efficiencies into healthcare.”

Operational efficiencies

It’s not just the ‘sexy’ stuff like virtual reality and robotic prosthetics that are paving the way for the future – in fact, it’s quite the opposite, continued Jonathan.

He said: “People think of health tech as a new sexy device, but the reality is that high-tech medical devices make up less than 10% of all the M&A that’s going on in healthcare.”
Around half of all the disclosed money being spent in this area is on vertical software for tasks such as hospital management, patient analytics and pharmaceutical discovery, for example.

“That is the relatively prosaic sort of thing that’s going on in any business to improve the processes needed to better deliver the mission, which is, in this case, well people.
“It’s indivisible from rising costs. It’s a perfect storm. The NHS, and any other healthcare system, is trying to deal with an impossible set of demands.”

Around a quarter of the market, he went on, was IT services, which has been driven by the rise of the Software as a Service (SaaS) model. The provision of electronic health records and ‘self-service care’ applications were also in the mix.

All of these areas are quietly revolutionising the nuts and bolts of how healthcare is delivered efficiently, while detailed, data-driven consumer knowledge is being used to develop ever better personalised care.

“Without data the dream of machine learning and artificial intelligence transforming our healthcare system will fail at the first hurdle”

Public transformation

Transformative ideas are not limited to the private sector, however, as shown by the NHS Genomic Medicine Service, which will be rolled out this summer.

Building on The 100,000 Genomes Project, it will provide healthcare professionals with a directory of available genetic tests and access to seven new genomic ‘hubs’. Crucially, patients who have their DNA sequenced will also be asked to consent to being re-contacted when relevant research gets underway.

Dr Gemma Chandratillake, Education and Training Lead at the East of England NHS Genomic Medicine Centre, said the programme demonstrated the transformative potential of structured, integrated data collection.

“In the past, research and clinical care have been separate, but this is a hybrid model. It changes the dynamic, makes research a two-way street and gives researchers access to ready-assembled cohorts,” she explained.

There’s also scope in pharmacogenetics and pharmacogenetic testing, she added, highlighting how this could spark greater advances in personalised medicine.
“We all know that people do not react to drugs in the same way, partly because of the way different people metabolise them. You could look for genetic markers of enzymes related to metabolism and that would make a big difference in terms of drug choice and dosage,” Gemma added.

Augmented humanity

This kind of data amalgamation offers the possibility of “plugging gaps” in the healthcare system, said Hassan, who is also a Researcher at Imperial College London.

“It’s about leveraging the data to find where the problems are, then, if it’s a routine task, finding ways to make it automated.

“We have a shortage of radiologists, for example. So, if there is a way you feed the scans into a machine that can knock out the 80% they do not need to worry about, they could focus on the 20% that do need their attention.

“It’s not about replacing the human, it’s about augmenting the human.”

Such ideas could be transformative in terms of treatment, outcomes and costs, and the time is ripe to start delivering on these promises.

Accelerating progress

If the innovation is happening across pharma, healthcare and technology and momentum is building, it’s now time to accelerate the progress. Stuart said: “Technology and statistics are not new to pharma, the industry is built on both. I think here the opportunity really is that technology, in particular machine learning and artificial intelligence, has the potential to hugely accelerate time to results.”

Key to fulfilling this potential is partnership, both between the private and public sectors and between healthcare systems and patients.

“The labour market for PhD-educated artificial intelligence scientists is constrained, however what pharma and healthcare both have are excellent subject matter experts who understand both their data and their real-world problems,” Stuart added.

“What we believe they need is tooling that is able to strike the balance between empowering them to interrogate their data whilst not bogging them down with the details of the underlying machine learning.”

Informed consent

The most important thing, everyone agreed, was to engage the public in this process of change.

“People value the NHS and they want to help. They want cures for cancer and treatments for rare diseases,” said Gemma, adding that transparency and engagement were the keys to gaining consent.

Hassan pointed to the Wellcome Trust’s Understanding Patient Data initiative. Billed as a vehicle to support the public’s understanding of what health data is, how it is protected and its life-changing potential, he said the programme needed the industry’s support.

“There is suspicion around data collection, so there needs to be public outreach from every major company. We all need to come together in a common voice.”

Humanisation and coordination are vital, he added, because without data the dream of machine learning and artificial intelligence transforming our healthcare system will fail at the first hurdle.



Read the full magazine here: April Pf Magazine