The Life Sciences sector has not been as newsworthy, pressured and flush with investors in living memory. The arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 has suddenly and emphatically focused attention on Life Sciences. The perception of the sector, and the reality of how it operates, has shifted. But in truth, Pharma was already changing.

Trends unrelated to the pandemic began with the shift away from searching for big-earning blockbuster drugs treating broad indications. Cost-effective opportunities in this type of market are dwindling, in the face of ever-increasing R&D and approval costs. Meanwhile, the shift to precision medicine has accelerated. Digital technology and biotechnology continue to make deeper inroads and stronger interconnections in how treatments are researched, developed and consumed. And those are just some of the developments.

Back in the distant, pre-COVID world of 2019, the Pharma industry was being dogged by the competing pricing concerns of payers and producers, with increasing pressure against companies seen to be benefiting from a monopoly on human health. Calls for tighter regulation on prices were particularly prevalent in the US, becoming a major theme of political debates.

A change in perception

Then along came COVID. Much as a global conflict usually sees major advances in weaponry, this global pandemic has seen a rapid boost in life science technology, collaboration and funding, as pharma companies, research organisations, SMEs and universities collectively search for a vaccine. The perception of Big Pharma has shifted correspondingly, from profiteers to potential saviours. It is probably true to say that never has so much been known about the sector by so many, in such a short space of time.

The growth of interest in Life Sciences has included investors; funding in 2020 has been incredibly strong. Biotech companies comprised 80% of all US IPOs in the first quarter and the US Nasdaq Biotechnology Index neared a five-year high in late April.

The US is the leader for investment by a big margin, but China has also seen some large investment rounds. Investors apparently see the sector as economy-proof and this is underpinned by a stronger public perception.

Tech advances

What of the technology? It has changed the R&D landscape, significantly reducing costs. Closer ties between tech and biotech are driving speedier, more targeted drug development, replacing the previous time-consuming trial and error required to prove theories. Interaction simulations can be run at the click of a button and clinical trials can progress more rapidly and cost-effectively through technology-aided efficiencies.

As R&D expense reduces and the remaining available blockbuster indications diminish, addressing smaller markets and niche illnesses has become more commercially viable alongside the long-standing medical needs. AI is invaluable in finding links in the rapidly accumulating global data resources. It is also creating more platform plays and modular business plans designed for biotech companies to bolt onto. And it is assisting clinicians by enabling faster, accurate reviews, such as analysing scans for breast cancer.

Enabling better prevention

Technology is also improving the quality of preventative medicine. Apps are helping doctors carry out remote diagnosis and secure more real-time, comprehensive feedback. Taking advantage of the Internet of Things, devices such as smart toilets can collect and analyse samples, and provide early warning of kidney or gastro-intestinal diseases. Spotting problems before they develop has physical, emotional and financial benefits for individuals, and the use of virtual coaches can support this by guiding patients through a healthier, preventative lifestyle.

More effective therapies

At the leading edge of life sciences, tech is helping new therapies to be better understood and utilised. Cell therapy is identifying and developing stem cells suitable for specialised uses, such as dopamine producers that could combat Parkinson's disease. Better gene editing tools are delivering improvements in gene therapy, while next-generation genome sequencing is allowing the development of precision medicines to previously unattainable levels.

The race for a vaccine...

Crucially, and taking us back to where we started, vaccines can be constructed differently – a point more pertinent than ever as science attempts to race towards an effective COVID-19 cure.

And its side effects

Is there a downside to all this? Yes. COVID has understandably monopolised attention and pushed back most other drug trials. Around half of non-COVID trials have been delayed this year, with critical developments put on hold and many biotech firms effectively in hibernation.

Whilst the true impact of these delays remains uncertain, there have nevertheless been a number of positives for the life sciences sector in 2020.

Positives for life sciences

Public and investor perception of pharma and life sciences has improved, with a resultant increase in funding and greater interest in careers in the sector. More specialised, precision medicine is giving fresh hope to those facing currently untreatable illnesses. Advances in tech-enabled diagnosis, drug development, dosing and monitoring have accelerated progress, with the spotlight on vaccines, genetic testing and monitoring leading to greater prominence on prevention.

Many of us are getting accustomed to the 'new normal' – acknowledging that post-COVID life will never be quite the same as it was before. The pandemic has resulted in a new normal emerging for life sciences too: greater collaboration, potentially faster trials and approval, and more integration of technology leading to more targeted and effective prevention and treatment.

Memories are often short, so how long life science advances will stay in the limelight is open to conjecture. But at this point in our state of the nation review, the life sciences sector is looking encouragingly healthy.

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