By Giuliana Miglierini
The technological evolution of pharmaceutical manufacturing towards the full implementation of the Industry 4.0 paradigm is rapidly advancing. Digitalisation of productions is supported by the wide spread of automation, devices connected to the Internet of Things, and machine learning algorithms able to keep entire processes under control. Looking at pharmaceutical development, new types of treatments are emerging, also requiring a retuning of current approaches. Results from a survey among experts and industry insiders (56 respondents from 13 different countries) run by Connect in Pharma show new challenges are to be faced in the incoming years by the pharmaceutical industry in order to maintain its market position.
The combined value of the global pharmaceutical market in 2022 is estimated to be approx $650 billion. The main component reflects pharmaceutical manufacturing (US$ 526 billion in 2022, data Insight Slice), while the global pharmaceutical packaging market value is roughly US$131 billion (data Fact.MR).
Many different factors supporting the transformation of pharmaceutical manufacturing have been identified by Connect in Pharma, ranging from ageing of population to Covid19 and Ukraine crisis, to climate change and pressures on energy costs, up to the shortage of healthcare professionals. The final conclusions and opportunities identified by the report indicate new partnerships and collaborations (mainly with startups, and small and medium-sized companies) will remain fundamental to support competitiveness, together with growing investments in tech-driven innovations. Involvement of patients and healthcare professionals in identifying unmet needs and optimal solutions is another item to be considered in order to increase adherence to therapy, suggests the report.
Digitalisation still waiting to full exploit its potential
Innovation in automation and digitalisation of processes has been introduced in the pharmaceutical sector at a slower pace compared to other industrial sectors, due to its higher regulatory barriers. About one third (28%) of respondents to the survey indicated their companies are developing artificial intelligence (AI) or other digital tools for application in the manufacturing and packaging process. The main drivers towards the implementation of such systems are more efficient data collection, reduction of manufacturing down times and human errors, and the use of machine learning to support continuous manufacturing. Better workflow integration and anticounterfeiting, and the ability to share supply chain data with regulators are also relevant. These are all objectives that would need to provide new specific training to the workforce, e.g. on AI or tools for augmented reality.
One of the main barriers that, according to the report, is still slowing down the full potential of AI and digitalisation in the pharmaceutical industry is represented by the need to comply to regulations, including data integrity and security. The human factor may also prove relevant, as many people (including top management) may be reluctant to accept this change in technology. The availability of data scientists with a deep knowledge of the pharmaceutical sector is another critical point to be addressed.
Advances in drug delivery technologies
Connect in Pharma’s report also shed light on some drug delivery technologies that, despite not being an absolute novelty, are gaining relevance for the development of new products and treatments.
The moving of pharmaceutical pipelines towards a continuously increasing number of new biologic / biosimilar products, including mRNA-based and gene therapies, requires the availability of manufacturing and packaging capacities able to accommodate the specific needs of such often very unstable macromolecules. New drug delivery systems have been developed in recent years to provide answers to this need, among which is inhalation technology.
Dry powder inhalers and nasal delivery devices are the preferred formulations for the 50% of respondents to the survey that indicated actions are ongoing to develop new products using inhalation technologies. According to the report, these devices might prove particularly useful to deliver drugs that need to rapidly pass the blood-brain barrier in order to become effective, as well as for the delivery of vaccines. Fast absorption and higher bioavailability compared to other routes of administration are other elements of interest for inhalation technologies, which is also believed to be able to contribute to the reduction of carbon footprint.
Once again, the regulatory environment resulting from the entry into force of the EU Medical Devices Regulation (especially for drug-device combination products), together with the need to demonstrate patient safety and satisfactory bioavailability of these devices, are among the main barriers to their development, says the report. Inhalation technologies may also give rise to a new generation of delivery devices connected to the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT).
Another major trend identified by Connect in Pharma refers to the development of new drug delivery systems for injectable medicines (50% of respondents). This area is greatly impacted by the entry into force of the revised Annex 1 to GMPs, on 25 August 2023, that will increase the requirements for aseptic manufacturing. According to the report, main areas of innovation in this field may include new devices for injectable drug delivery, namely targeted to diabetes (the leading area of innovation), intravitreal ocular injection, autoimmune diseases, oncology, respiratory therapy, and pain management.
Diabetes is a highly relevant field of innovation also with respect to the implementation of connected devices, those embedded sensors and electronics allow for the real-time collection of data on self-administration of the therapy by patients, and their forwarding to health professionals. AI algorithms further enhance the potential of connected devices delivering diabetes treatments, as they support the real-time monitoring of insulin concentration in blood, and the consequent level of insulin delivered by the device. According to Connect in Pharma, other positive characteristics arising from the use of connected devices refer to the possible increase of patient adherence and compliance to treatment, resulting in improved patient outcomes and more personalised treatment.
Regulatory barriers are once again a main burden to the wider spread of connected devices, says the report, due for instance to the ultimate control over the sharing of data, and the choice if to implement single-use or reusable devices. Manufacturing costs, cybersecurity, and patient hesitancy are other hurdles identified by respondents to the survey.
The challenges for sustainability
The green policies put in place especially in the EU are calling industry to revise its processes and products to decrease their environmental impact, improve sustainability of manufacturing and packaging processes, so to eventually meet the climate targets fixed for 2050. According to the report, the global healthcare sector would be responsible for 4.4% of global net emissions. Connect in Pharma’s survey indicates 66% of involved companies are working to implement more sustainable practices. These may include for example the use of recycled materials in secondary packaging, the implementation of energy efficient technologies, and the development of more ecofriendly drug delivery systems. Costs have been identified as the main barrier to transition, together with the lack of common definitions. According to some of the experts, a wider use of data to monitor manufacturing systems and processes may help in improving the overall efficiency and in lowering the carbon footprint. Transport, for example, has a great impact on the sustainability of packaging.