Tunnah’s musings: Pharma visionary of the year


As Paul Tunnah is reminded of his contribution to an external thought leadership publication that has just gone live, he muses on the justification for picking someone as 'pharma visionary of the year' who does not actually work in a pharmaceutical company.

Spoiler alert: This article reveals my 'pharma visionary of the year', which forms part of the '2016 Verix Annual Influencers Outlook', which puts it in context.

So here we are in 2016 and I'm finding myself immediately reminded of something I did at the end of last year, with the publication of the 'Verix 2016 Annual Influencers Outlook'. It's an interesting thought-leadership piece featuring opinions on the future of pharma from a number of 'influencers', in whose good company I am very flattered to be.

You can read the full piece to see opinions on a wide range of issues, from patient-centricity to big data, but I felt my answer to one particular question deserved a little more explanation – my response to who I saw as 'pharma visionary of the year' in 2015.


"So why choose her and not a more recognised 'pharma' figure?"


And my answer is someone who, strictly speaking, does not work in the pharmaceutical industry as we commonly define it – Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of personal genetics company 23andMe.

So why choose her and not a more recognised 'pharma' figure?

Simple – I think her work with 23andMe demonstrates a number of activities that should be replicated by more pharma companies, while also helping to advance the industry agenda in their own right.

Engaging with consumers

23andMe is, arguably, at the forefront of the 'consumer revolution' in healthcare, with the business initially focusing on selling DNA-testing kits to members of the public wanting to determine their risk of having some specific diseases, based on their genetic profile. In this sense, it started out very much as a B2C company, but one that had to tread carefully in a delicate area, due to concerns about the sharing of such personal data with insurance companies.

The privacy issues surrounding patient data have, historically, hindered both government and pharmaceutical industry attempts to capitalise on the value of such information, but 23andMe managed to navigate these choppy waters quite effectively. In doing so, it has also built direct links to millions of consumers and done a great deal in explaining the value of medicine in general, and personalised medicine in particular.

Working with the regulators

The regulatory bodies – FDA, EMA and their equivalents in other geographies –are, quite rightly, held in a state of reverence by the pharmaceutical industry because of their role in controlling access to new treatments. But it's easy to forget that, while the commercial sector is struggling with this emerging healthcare maelstrom of medicines, diagnostics and technology, the regulators are also grappling with how to manage this new paradigm.


"Many new drugs make it a long way through R&D without a well-defined patient population"


While I cannot claim to know the details of any discussions that took place between 23andMe and the FDA, it is clear that an initial knockback on approval for these diagnostic kits was turned around, presumably by constructive dialogue. In doing so, no doubt both parties gained valuable insight that can be applied elsewhere. Likewise, greater levels of dialogue between the pharmaceutical industry and these regulators would surely also be beneficial, as the landscape of interventions shifts.

Using data to drive value

The pharmaceutical industry has always been an evidence-based one and the wealth of emerging real-world data has never presented a better foundation on which to initiate drug development programmes. However, personalised medicine still has some way to go and too many new drugs make it a long way through R&D without a well-defined patient population in which they will demonstrate solid efficacy.

In an age where value – the demonstration of cost- rather than clinical-effectiveness – is the primary determinant of success, the industry has focused quite rightly on a number of beyond-the-pill initiatives designed to more effectively translate clinical benefit to the real world. Patient support programmes and technological adherence solutions are all important, but are not the major determinants of delivering value when compared to understanding exactly which patients will benefit from a treatment. The type of data being delivered by 23andMe has therefore done a great deal for pharma in the value equation and the industry should definitely look at how it can support such activity in whatever guise.

Focusing on wellness, not illness

Finally, we hear a lot of talk about focusing on maintaining wellness, rather than preventing illness, and it is something that the pharma industry is keen to position itself at the core of. This opens up all kinds of broad areas of opportunity, including earlier diagnosis and healthier lifestyles, designed to catch diseases before they become problematic and help us generally reduce our risk of developing them at all.


"This is not intended to put 23andMe on a pedestal as a perfect company."


But these are very general solutions. In understanding your risk for a particular disease in the way that 23andMe has allowed, you can (where possible) take defined lifestyle steps to reduce your risk, in addition to monitoring signs of disease onset to catch it far earlier than traditional diagnosis. We know, in many cases, that medicines are more effective at tackling disease when delivered early, before it becomes too advanced, so this is again building a value case for the pharmaceutical industry. Anyone can tell me that eating healthier food and exercising more will reduce my risk of dying young, but only an understanding of my genetic profile allied to modern medicines can help to tackle some of the more serious diseases.

This is not intended to put 23andMe on a pedestal as a perfect company. Indeed it faces the same ethical challenges of any company in the healthcare space around balancing profits and patients, but I do think its work – and that of similar companies – will one day be regarded as a turning point in the way the pharmaceutical industry operates and the outcomes it can deliver to patients.

So that's why I chose Anne Wojcicki, of 23andMe, as pharma visionary of the year. Of course, I'm quite willing to be challenged on this and would be interested to hear who you would nominate, so feel free to comment!

Until next month, I hope your 2016 has got off to a good start and, as always, stay well.

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is CEO & Founder of pharmaphorum media, which drives better communication, connection and collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and other healthcare stakeholders. Its suite of services, from publishing (www.pharmaphorum.com) to content-driven engagement consulting (www.pharmaphorumconnect.com) are underpinned by the common strengths of extensive global networks, a firm finger on the pulse of changing market dynamics and deep expertise in creating engaging, relevant media.

For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

Have your say: Who would you choose as pharma visionary of the year?

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Linda Banks

15 January, 2016