A few decades ago, pharmaceutical giants did most of the discovery work in-house, along with every other work necessary to get a drug or medical device to market. Nowadays, nearly any type of R&D or regulatory filing work that a drug maker or a medical-device producer needs to do -- from pre-clinical development to running clinical trials and go-to-market activities -- can be outsourced to CROs, and often it is the case.
According to a report by Kalorama Information, a market-research publisher in Rockville, Maryland, more than one-third of all global drug-discovery research will be outsourced to CROs by 2021.
In the wake of "the artificial intelligence (AI)-revolution" in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, CROs are tapping into various AI technologies to further cement their position in the global pharmaceutical R&D market -- in some instances competing for expertise and talent even with the leading drug makers.
Findings published by Deep Pharma Intelligence, a pharmaceutical industry think-tank in London, United Kingdom, in their report "AI for Drug Discovery, Biomarker Development and Advanced R&D Landscape Overview 2020" reveal that some of the leading CROs are actively adopting various artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, including machine learning (ML), deep learning (DL), and natural language processing (NLP) in their research workflows -- via building in-house platforms, or partnering with AI-vendors and AI-focused biotech startups.
Since the overwhelming majority of CROs are involved in clinical-stage projects, most AI-involving projects are primarily dealing with such use cases as patient recruitment for clinical trials, clinical trial management and result modeling, and patient stratification. However, notable areas of AI application include early drug discovery, preclinical development, and pharmacovigilance.
Let’s review some of the initiatives by leading CROs aimed at incorporating more value to their services via establishing AI-driven processes, and using the latest advances in big data analytics:
IQVIA is developing artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to support customers with clinical trials and commercial activities. To improve clinical trials, IQVIA recently launched Avacare Clinical Research Network™, which allows sites to match patients for the trials faster and more efficiently. The platform is powered by AI algorithms and can operate across 19 disease areas.
A year before, another IQVIA‘s Linguamatics Natural Language Processing (NLP) platform became a winner of the Questex’s 2019 Fierce Innovation Awards. The platform can have vast applications in healthcare and life sciences, including target identification, gene mapping, predicting patient outcomes, and so on.
Parexel has purchased Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology assets and transferred key personnel from Roam Analytics, a healthcare software company. This addition will enhance Parexel’s capabilities of RWD data analytics and Pharmacovigilance. The technology platform developed by Roam Analytics allows processing any healthcare language data, including clinical notes, telemedicine interactions, social media, and other sources.
Together with Innoplexus, Parexel has opened the COVID-19 Clearinghouse initiatives, which serves to give access to accumulated data about Covid, including publications, clinical trial links, recent news, and other various datasets.
In 2019, PPD signed up collaboration with a Chinese company Happy Life Techn (HLT), where HLT gives PDD access to its network of more than 100 clinical trial sites in 22 provinces in China. Moreover, HTL’s advanced analytical capabilities can assist PDD with its previously initiated program for matching patients to clinical trials. This program, launched in 2018, proposes to enroll patients first before activating the clinical trials sites.
SGS Digicomply has launched a new AI tool, a content management platform called COVID-19 INTEL. Developed exclusively by scientists in SGS Digicomply, the platform contains about 50 thousand scientific papers which are classified according to the most popular questions about Covid-19. The platform is continuing the wave of initiatives emerging as a response to the Covid-19 and is available for any member of the research community.
Charles River Laboratories has established a partnership with Atomwise, a leading AI technology firm. According to the agreement, Charles River Labs gains access to the AtomNet™ platform developed by Atomwise and the right to offer this access to clients. AtomNet is a deep convolutional neural network capable of predicting the binding of small molecules to protein targets, especially suiting to target protein-protein interactions (PPI). The leveraging of this platform, as well as Charles River expertise in optimization of all drug development stages, starting from hit generation to preparation for IND filing can help to minimize the time and cost of the drug discovery process.
CMIC, a Japanese contract research company supporting nearly 80% of new drug development programs in the country, recently joined forces with AI technology firm SUSMED to start offering services that shorten the time of setting up clinical trials. Specifically, the solutions will help researchers to get valuable insights from real-world data (RWD), which often contains repetitions, incomplete or biased data. To make such data simpler to analyse, CMIC performs cleansing of RWD provided by pharmaceutical companies. Subsequently SUSMED applies AI to analyse data processes by SMIC.
In 2018, Wuxi AppTec and Insilico Medicine entered the drug discovery collaboration where Insilico’s generative adversarial networks (GANs) and reinforcement learning (RL)-based drug discovery pipelines were examined. After the successful validation, Wuxi AppTec infused an investment into Insilico to further accelerate the generation of novel molecules leveraging Insilico’s technologies and closer integrate them with laboratory infrastructure and expertise at Wuxi AppTec.
Concluding this post, it should be noted that the modern contract research industry is rapidly evolving to offer a wider range of services, preferably the "end-to-end" drug development experience, and become more agile strategic partners, rather than narrowly functional service providers. A number of major trends shaping the modern CRO industry are highlighted and discussed in the article "The Evolving Pharma R&D Outsourcing Industry: A Bird’s-eye View".