Tech it easy

The drug discovery process and profit margins of life sciences industry shot up when it decided to step up investments in information technology. Sachin Jagdale provides the low down

Information technology (IT) has put Indian life sciences industry on the threshold of a rapid make over. The will of life sciences companies and zeal of IT have indeed caused many life sciences professionals to heave a sigh of relief as it lightened the pressure of speeding up the drug discovery process and gearing up for new regulatory challenges. Patent expirations and subsequent reduction of pipelines of drug molecules have made pharma and research companies to try and reduce the time period of drug discovery.

The entry of IT into the life sciences sector has started a new era, one in which knowledge is the new currency. Perhaps, the life sciences industry might not have got a better rescuer than IT. Bill Gates, Chairman, Microsoft, has rightly said, “IT and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without talking about the other.”

“Adoption of technology by
the life science industry, especially the healthcare sector has changed its dynamics across the world”

– Anil Bhasin Senior Vice President, Enterprise Cisco India and


“In order to optimise the cost structure and reduce the development cycle time the industry has no option but to outsource now”

– Milind Joshi Vice President Life Sciences Business Unit


Why life sciences?

The last decade has witnessed transformations in biology due to the involvement of IT. It took just over a decade to map the human genome. Proteins are the basic building blocks of the cell and IT has played a crucial role in understanding the functions of many proteins. Future innovations in IT will provide new options to life sciences industry to go to the roots of human diseases and also create data archives for future researchers. Despite having so many challenges, what has led IT companies to life sciences? “Adoption of technology by the life science industry, especially the healthcare sector, has changed its dynamics across the world. With the advent of internet technologies and rapid access to information management and delivery of healthcare information has emerged as one of the key focused areas,” says Anil Bhasin, Senior Vice President, Enterprise, Cisco India and SAARC. He adds, “Collaborative technologies, telecommunication and information have given rise to innovative practices such as e-health. These practices have opened up opportunities to provide healthcare facilities to patients better, faster, at lower costs and higher levels of convenience. In India the overall healthcare market is booming.” Bhasin supports his claim by providing details of a CII-McKinsey study, which reveals that the total healthcare market in the country could increase to $53-73 billion (6.2 to 8.5 percent of GDP) in the next five years. However, IT adoption in healthcare sector is in its early stages in India.

Milind Joshi, Vice President, Life Sciences Business Unit, Patni, opines why outsourcing is necessary in life sciences industry. He feels that IT should have entered the life science sector quite some time back. It would have certainly helped the life sciences industry in managing sinking drug pipe lines. However, it is better late than never. Joshi says, “The life sciences industry has been a relatively late adopter of outsourcing. The industry is facing huge challenges of reduced new drug pipe line and shrinking profits along with competition from generics and manufacturers from low cost countries. In order to optimise the cost structure and reduce the development cycle time the industry has no option but to outsource now.”

“The life sciences industry has become increasingly reliant on IT tools to reduce the costs and boost the productivity of R &D”

– Dr Anand Bidarkar

Vice President Business Development

Siro Clinpharm

“Every organisation has a different set of challenges which need to be addressed while implementing IT solutions and these differ with the size, level of IT adoption and the nature of the business of the organisation”

– Nitin Paranjape Director for Sales

Oracle India

Give and take

Undoubtedly, the growing interest of IT into life sciences has a commercial vision. However, it is a tough task for IT to win the trust of their new client, as it has its own demands or expectations from IT. At the end of the day, if this alliance succeeds, then both partners will have gained. IT will improve revenues while life sciences will benefit by reduced operational costs. “The life sciences industry has become increasingly reliant on IT tools to reduce costs and boost productivity of R&D. The expanding complexity and diversity of information through various sources open up the need to manage and analyse this data,” says Dr Anand Bidarkar, Vice President, Business Development, Siro Clinpharm. “There is a need to create systems that are able to handle the increased data load,” he adds.

Life sciences industry has great expectations from the IT industry. Till date, the role of IT in life sciences has shown promising results. Bidarkar says, “Life science companies expect IT services provider to help them leverage the tremendous benefits that can be derived from IT in areas such as clinical drug accountability, drug counterfeiting, cell line management systems, analytics, clinical development and bioinformatics.” As Nitin Paranjape, Director for Sales, Oracle India, points out, of all the drug candidates selected for development in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, only a few make it to clinical trials. Fewer still go on to become successful, profitable products. Similar odds face the medical device industry, where product survival often depends on keeping prices competitive while containing design and manufacturing costs, hence, companies are looking for solutions that help them achieve all these.

Rising demand is the reason behind the current metamorphosis of life sciences industry. Ever changing science, with innovations every alternate day, has made life sciences industry to think about experimenting with new working methods. Meeting the demands of pharma companies and scientific community is possible only with the help of technology. Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft Corporation, sums up the necessity of technology in his famous quote where he says, “The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

Tough gets going

Though life sciences industry is a goldmine for IT, the ascending graph of complexity and variability of information poses new challenges. Many times, data from different sources need to be stored in different formats and it is a tough task to pass this test. The difficulties go even deeper when data is raw or not available in a ready format. There are challenges related to infrastructure and work force as well. “Like other industries, rising costs, operational inefficiencies and labour shortage continue to pose challenges to the growth and expansion of life sciences organisations,” informs Bhasin. Joshi says, “One of the primary challenges faced by IT companies while servicing customers in the life sciences segment is that the industry is heavily regulated. While technology and automation ensure better time-to-market, they also present compliance challenges.”

According to research firm IDC, Oracle has emerged as a leading platform in life sciences, with an estimated 75 to 80 percent market share. So Oracle’s experience with life science industry could throw up some interesting pointers for other IT providers. Paranjape sheds light on difficulties for IT while venturing into life sciences. He says, “Every organisation has a different set of challenges which need to be addressed while implementing IT solutions and these differ with the size, level of IT adoption and the nature of the business of the organisation.” Oracle’s platform for life sciences consists of features in Oracle Database, Oracle Application Server, and Oracle Collaboration Suite that address key information technology issues in life sciences.

IT has also created a smoother interface between life sciences and healthcare. IT-life sciences alliance has left a great impact on health care sector of India.

“The Indian healthcare sector is currently valued at $34 billion, projected to grow to nearly $40 billion by 2012. Though increasingly sophisticated, it is plagued by issues of access and scale. IT-life sciences collaboration will influence various aspects of the health sector especially in areas of low-cost diagnostics, healthcare delivery and access to medicines,” informs Bidarkar. Listing possible benefits of IT-life sciences, he elaborates, “IT-life sciences collaboration will allow greater research into likely genetic issues responsible for different types of diseases. Also, the innovation born out of this collaboration can meet market demand of consumers and providers for ever-more sophisticated healthcare solutions. The collaboration will allow scientists and researchers across multiple organisations to be in touch with healthcare delivery personnel to access and share data and collaborate in ways never before considered.”

Money matters

The very aim of bringing IT into life sciences is to make operations within the industry more efficient, which will in turn increase profitability of the company. So while planning IT implementation, discussion on cost effectiveness of the process always tops the chart. Bidarkar analyses the role of drug development and IT implementation in deciding the cost. “While there is no dispute about the fact that IT implementation in life science companies leads to cost saving, the quantum of cost savings and time required to realise these cost savings is a factor the company has to contend with. In some areas like drug discovery, the benefits could be substantial. For example, it now costs around $600-900 million and it takes 15 years on an average to develop a new drug. Of these, about 75 percent of drug development costs can be attributed to failures.”

Use of IT is the strong answer to drug failures. Technological advances will lower human errors. To err is human but not technology. “Advances such as computer-enabled ability to quickly screen drug candidates and predict drug responses could lower failure rates substantially, reducing costs by as much as one-third and time by as much as two years,” says Bidarkar. There are different views on the effects of IT on life science industry as Bhasin says, “It would be difficult to quantify the direct impact of the use of technology in the life sciences space, since IT acts as an enabler.” However, it is an undisputed fact that IT has brought in much awaited transformation into life sciences arena and as long as IT is there, life sciences industry can “tech it easy”. z