Since the start of the pandemic, the healthcare sector pivoted to build ventilators, develop vaccines, and create testing kits. Momentum from a year and a half of technology development has allowed teams to meet the challenge of COVID-19, as well as venture into developing areas like gene therapy, according to experts.
“We have to operate like COVID. I don’t accept anymore the [lengthy] timelines of our development,” said Dr. Christian Rommel, Head of Pharmaceuticals Research and Development at Bayer AG. “How would you do this if you were operating under the pandemic circumstances?”
During a May panel at the World Medical Innovation Forum, leaders from Bayer AG, Novartis Gene Therapy, and GE Healthcare shared how innovation has allowed the industry to make strides in 2020 and early 2021. They also discuss how their teams are approaching gene and cell therapy research.
Creating a Roadmap for the Development of Gene and Cell Therapy
The evolution of gene and cell therapies, which involve the genetic modification of cells, can provide new treatments for patients with chronic conditions. Over the last decade, “we’ve seen that the technologies…the processes, the precision, the reliability of the product, and the safety — all of this has just converged,” Rommel said. However, there are still relatively few gene therapy options used in clinics.
“There’s no roadmap here,” said Lisa Deschamps, Senior Vice President & Chief Business Officer of Novartis Gene Therapies. “While we have a number of cell and gene therapies on the market, it’s still — in comparison to the broader therapeutic option space — very small.”
Therefore, pursuing breakthroughs in this realm, she says, will require flexibility and adaptability when moving toward commercialization. “What we need to do is really learn in real time. So we’re creating the roadmap as we go,” Deschamps said. “We need to learn quickly and pivot accordingly…[and] bring these types of therapies through clinical development. Once we do that, and we gain the market authorizations, we can then commercialize them, and most importantly, bring them to the patients in need.”
Innovation Excels During COVID-19 Pandemic
According to CEO of GE Healthcare Kieran Murphy, new needs during the pandemic accelerated the deployment of digital technologies in the healthcare sector.
“To quote one of our hospital CEOs, he said, ‘look, we made eight years progress in two months at the beginning of 2020,’ because we were forced into a situation where we had to do telemedicine effectively,” Murphy said in the conference. “Many physicians and radiologists had to read scans remotely, and so on – that put huge pressure on all of us to ensure that the systems are robust.”
The distribution and manufacturing elements of healthcare have also taken leaps forward over the previous 18 months. Lisa Deschamps said that Novartis Gene Therapies was able to reach new patients in new demographics despite the challenges brought on by COVID-19.
“So at the onset of the pandemic, we had approval in the US and we were just finalizing our approval in Japan [of gene therapy techniques],” Deschamps explained. “And then we since continued on to now having approval in 39 countries… Prior to the pandemic, I don’t think we ever thought we could do those things and launch in this many countries and achieve these sort of milestones remotely or virtually.”