Drug discovery in the post-Corona world

Drug discovery in the post-Corona world

Abhishek Jha
May 1, 2020

February 2020 seems like a distant memory.
Pre-Corona, we were still shaking hands and WFH was still an indulgence. And now, the entire world from the citizenry to governments, companies big and small are in the trenches fending for their lives. This crisis is unusual. Never before in most of our lifetimes, the urgency of getting access to an effective drug faster has been as fierce.

Of course, there have been a number of unmet needs for Corona patients before the current crisis and will, unfortunately, exist after this Corona crisis has been contained. Many years back in our annual company retreat (I was working at Agios Pharmaceuticals then) a woman in her late 30s was brave enough to share her story with the entire company. She was born with a rare genetic mutation that had severely compromised her lifestyle. As she shared stories of her everyday struggle of being a mother and a teacher among other things, everyone in the audience was rapt in attention and teary-eyed.

She concluded with a request that has stayed with me since. If there was one experiment, one dataset to be analyzed, one slide deck to be made before we headed home, she pleaded us to finish that up before we left for the day. Patients like her and their families are hanging on to the hopes of a cure. Today, I feel her voice amplified a million times over. As lives and livelihood are at stake, the mission statement of our company takes a whole new meaning.

The scientific community at large has mobilized at an unforeseen scale to match the crisis. Many lessons from recent weeks, I believe, will outlast this Corona pandemic. The industry will accelerate the adoption of some ideas that have been ongoing for some years.

1. Guess and Test → Simulate and Validate

Historically, the biopharma industry has invested large amounts of time and resources in the later stages of drug discovery which also have higher odds of failure. It is a very popular talking point and rightly so that this is not sustainable. Clearly, in a situation like we are in right now, this has to give way to do things a different way.

The shift from this model to one where one simulates to generate a hypothesis and then validate it is far more conducive to lowering the overall costs and more importantly increasing the odds of success with patients. In such a scenario, petabytes of data that are publicly available become an essential toolkit in the arsenal of discovery teams. And any barriers that can be eliminated to transform these publicly available datasets to a ready-to-use form would be game-changing.

2. Embrace Technology

Discovering a drug takes close to 15 years. Shipping out a feature in software takes 15 days. Having been part of teams that have done both, I understand that the comparison is flawed. However, it is meant to be provocative. In these unprecedented times, we have to honestly reflect on how the decade long timelines can be cut short. A big part of the solution is embracing technology which the life-sciences industry has been notoriously slow to warm up to. It is also a cultural problem. Too often speed is the cost we are willing to pay for sticking to a process.

3. Post-Corona Collaboration

Seamless collaboration across different stakeholders is an inherently difficult problem. Even more so when such diversity of expertise is required to finding a cure for a pandemic. We are in the midst of an unusual forced experiment where scientists are away from their labs and yet as a community has to mobilize to come up with a cure. Something as trivial is accessing your data or instrument in your lab is unwieldy and sometimes intractable.

Yet on another end of the spectrum, scientists and large pharma companies are coming together to share sequencing data of the virus, data from ongoing clinical trials, or and things in between. It is quite ironic that we are experiencing both an unprecedented scale of collaboration and isolation at the same time. It is not clear yet as to when we will emerge from this crisis, however, the need for data, code, scientific protocol sharing through cloud-based platforms will become an integral part of the discovery process.

Finally, our response to this crisis will define us as a species, a community, and ultimately an individual.

  • Will WFH become the norm?
  • Will shaking hands be a thing of the past?
  • Would we be better prepared for the next pandemic?
  • Will the response to the climate change crisis be more firm and swift?
  • Will health care receive the same kind of attention and support and adulation that governments and societies reserve for the defense of their nation?

Break your old habits and talk to our experts to embrace technology and collaboration today.

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