Express Pharma

New potential for drug discovery has been enabled and accelerated by platforms like mRNA and new modalities

Rajeev Nair, Global Head, Chemistry, Life Science business, Merck, speaks about the emerging trends and technologies in life sciences, transformations in the pharma sector due to the COVID-19 pandemic, strategy shifts needed in pharma and chemistry education, and more in an interaction with Lakshmipriya Nair

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Tell us about the emerging trends/technologies in pharma and biotech industries. What are their drivers?

Some of the broad trends we observe in pharma and biotech industries revolve around digitalisation, artificial intelligence based drug discovery, sustainability and increased focus on novel modalities.

New potential for drug discovery has been enabled and accelerated by platforms like mRNA and new modalities. Further, artificial intelligence and machine learning applications provide access to processing large chemical databases beyond human capacity. Industry is investing in computer-powered services such as chemical design and synthesis, planning, automated synthesis, etc.

At Merck, we offer our tools like SYNTHIA retrosynthesis software and our automated chemical synthesis platform Synple Chem, among other lab digitalisation solutions.

Another emerging trend is the increasing regulatory stringency for safer and quality drugs – leading to innovation in technologies related to analytical chemistry.

Sustainability has become an imperative for industry. In the pharma/biotech industries, it can be translated into greener alternatives for hazardous chemicals and substances, innovative product design or even packaging. With the new regulations being rolled out in various geographies we will soon see acceleration in this sector.

The biotech industry is also being driven by new modalities like cell and gene therapy along with increasing focus on biologics which is the future.

How has the playbook for the life sciences industry and its partners changed since the onset of COVID-19? How is Merck geared for the new dynamics?

One of the biggest challenges and learnings from the pandemic for the life science industry was adjusting our agility to bring quicker solutions. During the initial phase of the pandemic, it was very challenging to address supply disruptions for critical raw materials, building reliable value chain along with safety of employees. Trust and supply security is going to be more critical for the industry in the future. We have also seen an expedited digital transformation in the industry during this period. At Merck, we are investing in expanding our R&D capabilities and manufacturing footprint globally to increase the agility in our operations and approach. Our robust presence with over 55 manufacturing and testing sites and 100+ distribution centres in 66 countries help us strengthen our supply chain to deliver over 300,000 products with minimum disruptions to our customers.

During COVID-19, we supported the world fight this crisis with more than 35 testing solutions across RT-PCR, antigen and antibody diagnostics for both high throughput centralised and distributed point-of-care settings; more than 80 different vaccine programmes, consisting of several platforms that include DNA, Inactivated, Live Attenuated Virus, Viral Vector, Protein Subunit and mRNA; and more than 50 monoclonal antibodies, plasma derived products and antiviral treatments.

The “life sciences” playbook evolved as the pandemic solidified the use of novel technologies, such as mRNA, used in the vaccines but with a huge potential to treat multiple other indications. Point-of-care (POC) tests, such as the rapid COVID-19 test, became much more popular, and a trend in the life science market for a future where diagnostics for a multitude of diseases is quicker, easy and accessible.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us to the brink of a huge transformation. How will these transformations manifest as trends and practices, especially in human resource management?

COVID-19 helped in accelerating digital transformation and to a great extent improve the cross-border collaboration between teams as well as with the customers.

We are paying particular attention to the ability of our organisation to best support future growth by further developing our operating model to enable new ways of working and even quicker decision making. Moreover, our focus is on the areas of talent development and leadership culture as well as diversity and inclusion. Several of our global product managers are now based in Asian countries including India and supporting customers across the world.

We are also constantly working to increase efficiency regarding processes and systems as well as continuing to emphasise a culture of cost consciousness.

Flexible working hours, leveraging global talent pools and utilisation of digital tools are some trends which are going to stay and will have long term impact on human resource development.

As the need for a highly skilled workforce to rebuild businesses, leverage growth opportunities and build efficiency intensifies, what is the strategy shift that is needed in pharma and chemistry education and training?

This is an important question. To name a few examples, I believe machine learning and AI will play critical role in drug discovery – so an opportunity would be courses and training enabling chemistry researchers to learn AI tools. Data scientists and chemistry researchers – and therefore society – could certainly benefit from them “speaking the same language.”

Another example is the use of high throughput platforms for chemical synthesis. 3-D bioprinting is another area for biomedical engineers to learn.

Academic research labs in India need higher funding along with significant upgrades. It will help India to have a talent pool to accelerate innovation and foster growth in the segment.

What are the new capabilities that India needs to aid research and development pharma and life sciences?

With $2.7 trillion nominal GDP in 2021 and as the world’s sixth biggest economy, I believe India could attract and invest more into R&D funding from both public and private sector. Pharma value chain, life science startups, academic research labs, pharma and biopharma manufacturers, contract research organisations and life science tool companies – all of those would play a critical role in building an ecosystem which can thrive on