Sci-fi or reality? The next frontier in medicine

  • VR was used to bring to life some complex science and help people understand what the new therapies and innovations will be in the future.
  • The power of patient data and their potential to be used to personalise care are exciting developments.
  • New science is so complex that no one organisation can hold all the knowledge to make the next generation of medicines, so progress will very much depend on partnership working.
Dr Ali Hansford, Head of Science Policy at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), speaks to pharmaphorum’s Linda Banks about virtual reality, ground-breaking science and the likely trajectory of pharma and healthcare.

Please tell us about your background and what your role entails.

My role, as the Head of Science Policy at the ABPI, involves working on issues which affect our member companies in the early stages of the drug development process – so this includes basic research in the laboratory, research with animals, phase 1 clinical trials using experimental medicines – and ensuring the UK remains an attractive place to research and develop new medicines.

Prior to working at the ABPI, I worked in the Policy & Knowledge team at Prostate Cancer UK for over four years and, before that, I was working in the labs at King’s College London for my PhD in immunology of asthma and allergy.

The ABPI recently produced a VR-based experience showing breakthrough medicine. Why did you choose this format?

Our virtual reality (VR) film ‘Welcome to the Future of Medicine’, which we launched at our Annual Conference in April, uses a mix of computer-generated imagery and live action laboratory footage from a working diagnostics lab to take the user on a 360-degree journey into the world of breakthrough medicine, going inside the body to explore how the technologies being researched today may transform the treatments of tomorrow. The use of VR brings this vision to life and explains complex science in an easy and understandable way.

What are you hoping to achieve with it?

We made the film with Inition to show what ground-breaking medicines and treatments are on the horizon in the next 20 years. We wanted to bring to life some complex science and help people understand what the new therapies and innovations will be in the future. This film is an excellent vehicle to show what the experience could be like for patients, their families and health care professionals. It is a great place to start conversations about how we work together to make the most of these amazing opportunities, as well as looking at the challenges of how we get there. We had a positive reaction from our members when we premiered the film at our conference and we will be showing it at other external events over the next 12 months. It is also good content for our work with schools and universities.

Please describe some of the ground-breaking science that could one day become routine in healthcare.

Healthcare is seeing significant change right now and this is predicted to continue over the next 20-30 years. The key drivers include changing demographics and disease prevalence, changes in how healthcare is provided and advances in scientific understanding. The film features several ground-breaking discoveries that are being investigated around the world, and which have the potential to one day be used in routine care:

Gene editing and gene therapies: Gene therapy aims to repair the direct cause of genetic disease by cutting out faulty sections of DNA and replacing them with slices of genetic material. Researchers are already looking at using it to treat Haemophilia B and investigating its potential to tackle other diseases, like cancer and infections.

Inhalable diagnostic sensors in the body: US researchers are investigating the potential of carbon nanosensors that are 100,000 times smaller than a strand of hair to identify infection and inflammation in hip-implant patients and people with catheters. They have the potential to be used to monitor for disease and alert clinicians.

3D printing of medicine patches: UK scientists are currently developing and testing 3D-printed patches from various polymer grades that could allow controlled release of medicine into the body, making medicines more clinically effective.

What most excites you about the future of healthcare?

The power of patient data and their potential to be used to personalise care.

The drive towards patient-centric care will be partly due to the availability of personalised medicine. The sophistication with which this will be possible in the future, thanks to technology, is unprecedented. If information within the healthcare system, currently stored in multiple disparate databases, can be linked and combined with genomic information, then tools such as machine learning and artificial intelligence will have a huge impact in allowing healthcare professionals to be able to identify the exact treatment or combination of treatments for an individual patient.

There is also a huge potential to empower patients to be more involved with their own healthcare through monitoring of how they are feeling and responding to treatments.

Sharing and analysis of patient data, on a large scale, will revolutionise the ability to get the right patients, the right treatments, at the right time.

What role do you see for the pharma industry in this brave new world?

I think it will be about partnership working. New science is so complex that no one organisation can hold all the knowledge to make the next generation of medicines, so progress will very much depend on partnership working. Partnerships between academia, the pharma industry, research charities and the NHS will enable patients to live longer, healthier and more productive lives. There are already good examples in the UK and we need to build on these.

We are working with Government and the NHS to find the right solutions for all: patients, the NHS and the UK economy. With innovations in genomics, healthcare data and advanced therapies, the future role of pharma is an exciting one.

Data will be crucial. The ground-breaking Salford Lung Study is the first randomised controlled trial of its kind to use a digitally-connected healthcare system to measure the effectiveness and safety of a medicine in 2,800 COPD patients in an everyday clinical practice setting. This is the healthcare of the future and we hope that the type of work being carried out in Manchester will become commonplace across the UK in a few years.

How is the ABPI evolving to help members manage the changing environment the industry faces?

Our key role is to work with people from different organisations to collectively understand the challenges and opportunities for science and health. We need to work with our members, government, the NHS, charities, academia and many others.

The obvious challenge facing our industry currently is Brexit. Brexit poses an uncertain future for the pharmaceutical regulatory environment with a potential impact on access to treatments for patients living in the UK and in the EU. Every month, 45 million packs of medicine move from the UK to the EU, with 37 million moving the other way. Securing cooperation on the regulation, trade and supply of medicines must be a priority for both the UK Government and the EU. The ABPI is working hard to ensure that the issues facing our members are understood and acted upon wherever possible.

We’re also working with the Brexit Health Alliance, comprising of the NHS, medical research, industry, patients, and public health organisations, to ensure that issues such as healthcare research, access to technologies and treatment of patients are given the prominence and attention they deserve in the Brexit negotiations, such as regulatory alignment and a strong funding commitment to the health and public health sectors.

Aside from Brexit, investment will be needed in an integrated, digital, patient-centric system, which supports patients from prevention, through diagnosis and personalised treatment, using new technologies and treatments as they become available. This will have to be underpinned by adequate development of workforces to provide future healthcare.

Whilst recruitment of doctors and nurses is an ongoing debate, the scope needs to be expanded to include a vision of a workforce with the skills to support personalised digital medicine. There are already specific gaps in the workforce and new skills gaps will emerge as the technologies emerge. Addressing these specific gaps should be complemented with training in emerging technologies for the whole workforce so they can all work effectively with patients on prevention, diagnosis and treatment of today’s and tomorrow’s diseases.

An example of where we are collaborating to ensure we have the right skills for developing and using new medicines is our work in the Clinical Pharmacology Skills Alliance. We are working with the British Pharmacological Society, the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine and Health Education England to increase the numbers of Clinical Pharmacologists. This will help ensure patients are on the right medicines, the NHS uses medicines effectively and the industry develops new medicines.

About the interviewee

Dr Ali Hansford

Dr Ali Hansford is the Head of Science Policy at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

Prior to joining the ABPI last year, she worked in the Policy & Knowledge team at Prostate Cancer UK and the Research Support team at the Institute of Cancer Research.

She holds a PhD in the immunology of asthma and allergy from King’s College London and a MSci in Pharmacology from the University of Bristol.

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