Making Sense of Change: A new era of innovation in life sciences?
“In a presentation the other day, Steve Bates [CEO of the BIA] quoted Lenin: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’,” says Hakim Yadi, chief executive and co-founder of Closed Loop Medicine.
“That quote feels particularly apt right now,” he adds, as the global impact of Covid-19 hits businesses, economies and communities, and forces through change to everyday life on a scale not seen in generations.
For the life sciences industry, what this change means is different for each company. Some are focused on supporting the national fight against the virus, while others are exploring ways of continuing to provide support for other important health services or looking to the future and how we can secure against a similar situation happening again.
Supporting the national drive for testing
Yourgene Health, for example, are involved with Covid-19 diagnostics and recently announced a manufacturing agreement to produce a key reagent for Novacyt’s Covid-19 test – a confirmatory test to see whether someone has the virus.
“We manufactured the first batch of those reagents and we’re scaling up for routine manufacture now,” explains Lyn Rees, chief executive of Yourgene Health. “There’s a wider discussion internally around how else we can support Covid-19 testing in addition to the other diagnostics tests that we develop.”
“We’ve made our laboratory in Manchester available to accommodate testing. We’ve notified all the relevant departments that we’re open for business as and when they’re ready.”
Although this is not Yourgene’s usual area of business, primarily focusing on products for prenatal testing, reproductive health and oncology, “there’s a lot of interest around and our capacity and skillset.”
“As a company, we haven’t worked in infectious diseases before,” says Rees. “However, a lot of the team have got important experience.”
“We have good supplies of our existing product range, so we can continue to service our customers. There’s been no change to our existing business, this is just incremental – it’s about using the skills and capacity that we have, and pointing it towards the Covid-crisis.”
That continuity of service is crucial because, as Roger Kilburn, chief executive of Arcinova, emphasises, “people are still getting sick with things other than Covid-19.” Arcinova continues to focus on its core pharmaceutical development work and essential trials being run for life-threatening diseases, such as cancers.”
“Although the massive focus is on the pandemic, we need the work on these trials to continue,” says Kilburn. “Covid-19 is a short-term extreme, acute problem. But the health issues of the country are still going to be there at the end of it. We felt both ethically and for business continuity that it’s very important to keep going.”
But alongside that, “We’ve offered our services to the NHS and are involved in a number of projects that are looking at finding solutions to Covid-19.”
Arcinova is looking at a project that “should enable us to detect viral infections via very widely available analytical routes.” Kilburn stresses that this is looking further ahead than the current pandemic, however, it should help with future outbreaks.
“At the moment, testing’s not straightforward. It requires certain reagents and enzymes that are not available in very large volumes, for a number of reasons,” he says. “But by identifying certain unique biomarkers of the viruses, we can utilise analytical techniques that are widely available in a large number of laboratories around the country, and you’d be able to accelerate testing really quickly.”
“A viral infection like this breaks out every five or six years, although not usually to this kind of severity. But it is proving that health services are very, very heavily stretched, and the countries that seem to be doing best are those that are able to test and trace quickly.”
Discovering new solutions
In looking to the future, other life sciences companies such as Closed Loop are focusing on how the recent rapid change we have seen might be leveraged for good.
“With the advent of social distancing and lockdown, we have seen a sudden need and reliance on the ability to communicate between health systems and patients in a digital way,” suggests Yadi.
For Closed Loop, which is in the space of providing remote care, combining behavioural therapy with drug therapy (currently in clinical trials and development), this means “setting a new baseline … digital is no longer something that people are going to question whether it will ever work. It’s being proven as an effective platform for clinical engagement right now during the pandemic.”
“One of the products we’re working on is for the management of insomnia and sleep disturbance,” says Yadi. “We want to be able to support patients with high unmet need, for example, Parkinson’s patients who have a horrible time with sleep disturbance.”
“We have been working with Parkinson’s UK to better understand patient needs. These types of engagements would ordinarily have been a face-to-face, and we’d run it in somewhere like London, but because of Covid-19 we had 15 Parkinson’s patients on a video call with us the other day.
“Not only was their insight critical and helpful, but just the very fact we were there with 15 patients from across the United Kingdom – in Scotland and Wales, on the south coast and from the Midlands – was great. It shows that digital can democratise engagement, and makes involvement in clinical research far more accessible.”
These developments could be vital, if correctly built upon, Yadi suggests. “The next wave of change will be about whether care can be managed remotely. There’s a need for decentralisation away from hospitals, putting responsibility back into the community.
“Delivering cost-effective solutions is going to be even more important than it was before. The NHS was already financially struggling. It’s going to be worse now, unless we do some really clever things with the way in which we as a healthcare community, and the government, respond.”
While there is a growing use of remote technology to keep services up and running, some still require part of their workforce onsite, which means keeping staff safe has been a priority.
“We’ve done a lot of work around social distancing and worked hard on sanitisation, but ultimately we’re a very safe place to work,” says Kilburn. “The whole ethos of a laboratory is to keep contaminants away from humans!”
“That said, I’ve got nothing but respect for our employees. It’s a very difficult situation, and everyone has their own approach to risk, depending on their own and their cohabitants’ health issues.”
Similarly, for Yourgene, “we work in a very clean, regulated environment, so social distancing and having the right equipment and cleanliness is not a problem.”
“But we’ve still sent about 70% of the workforce at home, which allowed us to protect a core of the workforce, put in some split shifts, and cross-trained our R&D team to make sure that they could step into production roles,” says Rees.
“As a global company with offices in Asia, we were a little bit further ahead in the curve, in terms of perhaps understanding what measures were coming our way. We were able to get ahead of the situation, run drills and make sure our systems were robust and the communication lines were good.”
For Yadi, the primary sentiment is one of responsibility, “in being a pioneering company with a great team that can do something that can help.” “And I feel very privileged to be part of a company that is in this position,” he adds.
Changing healthcare for the better
Although the end to the pandemic and this new normality perhaps still feels a long way away, all three companies were keen to stress the importance of learning and building upon the hard-earned experiences. Kilburn, for one, hopes we don’t forget these important lessons.
“When this dies down, we’ll all draw a big sigh of relief and hope it doesn’t happen again. Which isn’t really a strategy. The more years between events happening, the more the memory dims,” he says.
“There is a need to collaborate. The more we can share ideas, what’s working and what’s not, the more likely we are to successfully come through this.”
“We had this opportunity to react when the SARS pandemic hit, but it wasn’t anywhere near as nasty and didn’t bite as much,” adds Rees. “We have to really learn from this pandemic. The world has to change.”
For Yadi, “the new world will be one greater integration of digital but also more pragmatic and careful about how we deliver care. Hopefully, as a consequence of all this, we can be better positioned to provide a service that meets the needs of health systems across the United Kingdom and globally.”
This critical insight from life sciences companies will be invaluable, believes Tim Rea, life science investor at BGF.
“Companies within our life sciences portfolio are utilising their expertise; rapidly innovating and adapting to new market conditions to provide much-needed services,” he says. “Their experience and insight will have a vital role in guiding us through these challenging times and into a new era of healthcare.”
“Every business is different and we will continue to work closely with company leadership, offering support and guidance when needed, to help them emerge equipped for a new business environment.”
As Kilburn says, “In every crisis, there’s opportunity if you can see it.”
Closed Loop Medicine, Yourgene Health and Arcinova are backed by BGF. Closed Loop is headquartered in London, Yourgene Health is headquartered in Manchester, and Arcinova is headquartered in Alnwick, Northumberland.
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