Digitally transforming R&D to help improve patient outcomes

Written by:

Cristina Duran

Chief Digital Health Officer R&D

Matt Bonam

Head of BioPharmaceuticals R&D Digital Patient Health & Innovation

Alicyn Campbell

Head of Digital Health Oncology R&D

Leaders from Digital Health R&D, Cristina Duran, Matt Bonam and Alicyn Campbell, outline how they are harnessing the power of digital, data and analytics with the aim of transforming medicines development.

Digital health, the point at which healthcare, technology, data and analytics converge, is the subject of great promise, with the World Health Organisation believing it has the potential to improve health for everyone.1 At AstraZeneca, we’ve been working hard to make this a reality, with the years of experience we have accumulated enabling us to now embed digital health at scale across R&D. To achieve our goal of improving patient experience and outcomes and shortening the time it takes to bring life-changing medicines to patients, we have three strategic priorities: transforming how we work, redefining digital health and reimagining healthcare.  

Transforming how we work

We continually look for ways to streamline and optimise how we work, as part of our ambition to accelerate bringing new medicines to patients. Digital health has a big part to play in this. Artificial intelligence (AI), automation and best-in-class digital technology are already proving successful in enabling us to accelerate studies, improve data quality and reduce costs, as we push the boundaries of science to deliver life-changing medicines.

Through cross-functional teams, where our scientists, clinical teams, IT, data science and AI, and development operations colleagues are working alongside colleagues in Digital Health R&D, we have been able to accelerate the AstraZeneca pipeline, improve data quality and reduce some manual activities by 50%; while also reducing study costs by more than a fifth.

As part of this transformation, we are building a connected infrastructure of digital and innovative tools across R&D, including Merlin, Control Tower, Clinical Supply Chain and unified clinical trial management systems:  

  • Merlin is a study design companion that uses data and analytics driven technology to plan the most efficient and effective clinical studies. It allows our colleagues to create a study cost estimate in under five minutes and select sites for trials 70% faster than before, all while improving quality through better study design and site selection. Merlin also helps us to increase diversity in our trials, ensuring our trial populations are more representative of the real world population of potential patients.
  • Through Control Tower, we have fully automated with visual analytics the performance of all our studies at the global, region and country level, and are able to predict recruitment. This gives our leaders and colleagues real time access to the status of any study at their fingertips on their mobile or desktop to enable right time decision making.
  • Digital enhancements to our Clinical Supply Chain have already netted savings of over $100m and led to reductions in trial waste of more than 40% whilst also building the capability to set-up a trial in just days vs the months it previously took.
  • We are also the first large pharma company to replace legacy trial management systems with a best in class, cloud based, single, digitised and connected platform, meaning our teams globally are operationally ready to support our accelerating portfolio.

Redefining digital health

The number of digital clinical data collection devices, digital therapeutics and digital patient solutions keeps growing. So does our capability to interpret and analyse data across huge clinical and real-world data sets. In this part of our strategy, we focus on how digital, data and analytics can improve patient experience in trials and, more importantly, the overall outcome for those patients.

One of the challenges of study participation for patients is the amount of time spent attending clinic visits. With virtual visits, non-invasive data collection and technology that monitors patients in their homes instead of in a hospital setting, we are already reducing the number of clinic visits needed. In fact, in a review we conducted of over 90 protocols we found that up to 70% of trial data could be collected remotely.

These so-called ‘hybrid’ trials take the best elements of patient care; giving people the face-to-face clinical care which we know is so important, while reducing the need to travel and wait for routine testing and monitoring. We are already scaling globally  across our therapy areas and we are implementing strategies that aim for the majority of our clinical trials to be hybrid, with most of the data being collected from home utilising devices and apps to support patients.

To do this, we need technology to bring the point of care into the patient’s home. A key role for our team is finding great technology from partners, then working together in genuine collaboration to develop a product further so it is better than the sum of its parts. After years of evaluating new technology, we are now able to scale across the portfolio and are creating a large catalogue of more than 100 devices, which will all be assessed as clinically valid with positive patient experiences that support their successful use in clinical trials up to and including Phase III studies. Equally, our evaluation has also ensured we aren’t using devices that do not deliver the required accuracy or patient experience.

Once you are able to monitor patients from home more regularly, you have the potential to also help them to better manage their disease and connect them more closely to their healthcare teams. Combined, it is hoped these factors will contribute to improve their overall health outcomes. This part of the strategy focus on digital therapeutics, which requires rigorous scientific evidence to prove that patient outcomes can be improved through the digital intervention. Here, AstraZeneca is partnering with the best in the field and believes strongly that scientific evidence is key; working closely with physicians and regulators to focus on demonstrating these benefits for patients.

Reimagining healthcare

Finally, we believe Digital Health R&D has the potential to reimagine healthcare, which would see us being able to improve the overall patient journey, from earlier diagnosis, during treatment and post treatment.

We know that the diseases we aim to treat, hope to prevent and, in the future, even cure – cancer, respiratory, immunology, cardiovascular, renal and metabolic diseases – are complex and due to a myriad of factors, healthcare delivery isn’t optimal for the patient. An example would be that many cancers are still detected very late, when patient survival rates are lower than what they would have been if detected earlier. To solve this requires comprehensive collaborations with health systems, governments, new technology companies, large longitudinal health data sets and regulators. Through strategic partnerships,  digital, data and technology there is the potential in the future to:

  • Diagnose and detect diseases sooner.
  • Predict conditions so that people can be alert to risk and, if suitable, make lifestyle choices that can help to slow or potentially prevent disease onset.
  • Continuously monitor symptoms and keep care teams and physicians updated.
  • Analyse individual data using AI to identify triggers for individual loss of control and predict and prevent future ones, for example with asthma attacks.
  • Revolutionise how we engage with patients, so they can self-manage.
  • Work towards early detection for people going into acute events like myocardial infarctions to get alerted of signs earlier, intervening sooner, ideally before the damage is irreversible or the risk of secondary events is too great.

The impact of digital health is already being felt throughout AstraZeneca R&D, thanks to the dedicated efforts of our teams and their partners. As we continue to scale this work, the opportunity to embed digital and data is remarkable.

If you have an idea, invention or innovation that you feel can help patients live better and longer lives, our Digital Health R&D team wants to hear from you.