When Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact
With its strong heritage in collaboration and cutting-edge science, pharma is perfectly placed to embrace technology and deliver a new generation of interventions, says Bayer Chief Marketing Officer, Sebastian Guth.
When we talk about the impact of technology on our lives, we’re often asked to imagine a utopian future where technology wraps around us like a warm blanket and caters to our every whim. Reality can sometimes be a little different and take longer – personally, I’m still waiting for flying cars.
In healthcare, the world conjured up by futurists often involves constant monitoring of our entire lives, highly personalized treatments and even predictive algorithms that calculate how likely we are to need those treatments in the future.
While this vision is more science fiction than science fact right now, according to Dr Sebastian Guth, EVP and Chief Marketing Officer at the Pharmaceutical Division of Bayer, we are closer to realizing it than some might think.
“We are living in a revolutionary time of scientific change, particularly in medicine,” he says. “The prospect of treating or curing devastating diseases that have afflicted humankind for our entire history is now within reach. We have tremendous opportunities to make health and healthcare better.”
Technology has a crucial role to play. “I believe we will see the emergence of ‘predictive maintenance’ – the ability to predict which patients will best respond to a therapy or other intervention. In many ways, we are already seeing it in the continuous monitoring of our health, which will expand further, especially for those with a risk factor.”
The only way is up (or down)
Guth offers an unusual comparison. “Look at what we do today with elevators,” he says. “Elevators are full of sensors and only do we know the average number of elevators in a cohort that will stop working at any given time, we can predict whether a specific elevator will stop working in the next 72 hours. With that knowledge, you can intervene early and so avoid what would otherwise have been an unavoidable outcome. I believe that over the next years we will see healthcare go in the same direction.”
“Data-guided interventions” are another soon-to-be-seen innovation in medicines, he adds. “We are looking at a world where data and algorithms will increasingly support decision making, rather than treatment decision being guided simply by the assessment of a patient by a single physician.”
For Guth, innovation and technology can go beyond offering individual health benefits, they can help solve one of the biggest issues facing the world – the affordability of healthcare. “According to OECD estimates, some 25% of healthcare expenditure is wasted due, for example, to inefficiencies caused by sub-optimal care or giving therapies to patients who will not respond,” he says.
“Fast forward, and technologies like predictive maintenance will help us address this and so create the headroom we need for further innovation. We need to ensure that we optimize and utilize the advancements in technology to do a better job in deploying the best intervention for patients where that drives the biggest outcome.”
Pharma is often criticized for being slow to adapt and, when it comes to digital innovation, some stark warnings have been issued about the encroachment of tech companies. Guth, however, has a more positive prediction.
“My personal view is that we – as an industry and us at Bayer – not only have a right to play but an obligation to play in the new digital health environment. Big tech companies have a role to play and a contribution to make; they are coming to market with disruptive business models and deep expertise in areas in where we are still building expertise as an industry.
“However, in my interactions with many of these tech companies I see them struggle to understand our day-to-day business. They have a very profound understanding of parts of the new innovation paradigm, for example in data and analytics, but their expertise is less in biology, and they often struggle with the various regulatory and legal challenges.”
By combining expertise, pharma and tech can drive the big advancements in healthcare, he says. “There is an illusion in pharma that we must do everything by ourselves alone, that we need to hide our knowhow like treasure, but this mindset is changing. There is the belief that our industry will change fundamentally, but, if you look at what we’ve done historically, we’ve worked with academia, with biotechs, with many different partners. As an industry, we have great experience and heritage working in partnership.”
There is one specific lesson that pharma can learn from tech, says Guth. “What impresses me with some of the tech companies entering the industry is their willingness to chase very big dreams, I find this inspiring and, in many ways, I see a very strong link between what they do and what we do.
“At Bayer, we have deliberately expanded and broadened our definition of the innovation paradigm.”
Open minds – and a focus on the long-term – are also needed inside the health systems, he says. “Interest in healthcare does not always equate to interest in better healthcare. In many situations, we are faced with policy approaches that are targeting medicines budgets in isolation, often, for the sake of short-term savings.
“But if you look at the work we’re doing in biomarkers, companion diagnostics and real-world evidence, it all goes in the same direction – teasing out patient populations that respond best, which ensures the best utilization of resources. With technology, the ultimate aim is to get better in predicting the outcomes not just for an average population, but for specific individuals. It is very clear to me that resources are not infinite, but it is equally clear to me that a simple focus on cutting prices of pharmaceutical products is not the best way to drive value and better healthcare outcomes.”
Guth’s enthusiasm remains undimmed despite significant obstacles to the bright future he envisages. “There are many challenges, from how we combine our expertise in biology with tech’s knowledge of data and analytics, to incentives in health systems that focus on short-term outcomes, not to mention substantial legal and regulatory challenges, especially around data privacy and security. However, they can’t and won’t deter us from chasing the bigger dreams.
“I’m very excited about where science is going – just look at the progress in the field of gene therapy in the last three years. I am happy about the speed with which the science is developing, and I’m impassioned about the enormous acceleration in data and analytics. There are tremendous opportunities for substantial and profound innovation over the next 10 years to help patients to thrive.”
Sebastian Guth will be expounding his ideas at the eyeforpharma Barcelona event in March.