By Jordan Warshafsky. By April, merely a few weeks after the pandemic onset, surveys were already indicating that nearly 50% of research labs worldwide were forced to close. These closings presented imposing obstacles.
How were scientists going to research a need and develop a drug if they are not in a lab?
How were they going to meet deadlines?
The answers are discovered in both pharma and academia re-evaluating and taking significant steps toward accomplishing more with fewer people physically in the labs via increased automation, remote robotic labs, and virtual trials. In reality, there had already been a shift towards computer-aided biology since the fall of 2018. The pandemic hastened the action. While COVID-19 disrupted the status quo, it also pushed drug R & D to a new level.
Cloud software platforms allow bioscientists to construct trial protocols from their laptops with a graphical user interface, then transmit it to a remote lab in a language the robot comprehends. Additional platforms empower scientists to simulate, and run, experiments in remote robotic labs. These platforms not only enable pharma, academia, and drug researchers to break through pandemic-caused restrictions; they have the potential to:
- Improve productivity and reduce cost – Robots can consistently operate at a steady pace – they do not need a break, nor is their work affected by tiredness. Once they are programmed, they can accomplish the task quicker than humans. “Robotics helps to increase capacity, reduce manufacturing costs, and waste. Although the cost is high in the short term, the return on investment is highly beneficial, especially as the pricing and reimbursement of drugs continue to be a problem.”
- Reduce human error and present reliable data – Robotics reduces human manipulation of samples, which, in turn, reduces the potential for error and contamination. It streamlines the work while producing consistent data, which increases reproducibility, and maximizes output. A technician is still required to set up the robot, but most of the process is accomplished virtually, automatically collating and structuring data and then sending it to the user. Automated data collection allows a step by step audit, and ensures that experiments can be repeated precisely, regardless of the time between them.
The pandemic restrictions have resulted in more than increased automation and remote labs. The need to find treatments for COVID-19 and create a vaccine – all as rapidly as possible has sparked an increased shift toward sharing and collaboration.
“The pandemic has inspired great collaborations across industries and eco-systems, particularly around producing a vaccine, with Chinese and Australian researchers making the COVID-19 genome freely available to find a vaccine faster. However, the situation has also exposed significant challenges with sharing knowledge and data. The results from a lot of COVID-19 research have still not been easily shared or used across disciplines – whether that’s due to data on regional outbreaks being shared too late, or real-time treatment data being siloed in hospital systems. This is by no means due to want of trying; there is evidently a growing willingness to share data.” 1
It is time to take cross-organization and interdisciplinary collaboration to a higher level. The sharing of data and knowledge will bolster scientific discovery and ensure that its benefits will reach those who need it.
Virtual trials present another angle of the pandemic-instigated changes in drug R & D. Protocol for clinical development, including face-to-face patient interaction, has been entirely disrupted, prompting virtual trials’ acceleration. Fortunately, mature technologies are currently available to assist in “virtualizing many typical clinical trial activities, including remote physician consultations, secure drop-shipping, and medication tracking, and wearable/near-patient medical devices and apps to track clinical changes.” 2
Despite the challenges of a prompt projection of virtual trials, there are benefits. Pharma can quickly recruit specific patient segments wherever they live, rather than being limited to those located near a physical trial site. Industry estimates suggest that virtual trials are approximately 20% more likely to launch, and the time to recruit the first 100 patients accelerates from seven months to four months.” 2
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many drug research and development changes, but it is unlikely that the pharma industry will return to previous methods. Although the situations have forced changes more quickly than typically instituted, the changes have been for good as a whole.
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