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Pharma 2020-2021: Much More Than Just COVID

Set aside ‘Everything-COVID,’ and to many outsiders the past 20 months can appear as though the pharmaceutical industry took a sabbatical. Not true, of course…but everything else that occurred in the bio/pharma/medical space was almost entirely overshadowed by the pandemic.

Pharma, biopharma, medical devices, diagnostics and healthcare all stepped into the spotlight in 2020. In some cases, it happened reluctantly, as the media spotlight hasn’t always been a net positive for the overall life sciences & healthcare industries (drug pricing, opioids, and healthcare insurance all come to mind as issues that have left negative impressions of the life sciences/healthcare sector in the past).

In 2020, however, the overall tenor was almost entirely positive as we turned to medicine for salvation. Even under the increased spotlight, however, COVID managed to overshadow most other medical advances.

The fact that 2020 and 2021 saw so much progress outside of the pandemic is itself a testament to a remarkable time. It’s astounding that anything else was even able to happen, as we rushed to understand the virus, find treatment modalities and therapeutic compounds, develop vaccines, reinvent how the entire world did business – all while we adapted our personal lives to massive change and upheaval.

Here are some of the other medical, scientific, and healthcare advances (beyond mRNA vaccines and COVID PCR & antibody tests) that transpired during the heights of the pandemic – but failed to catch our attention.

Digitization and AI
Some technologies or advances slowly weave their way into the fabric of an industry over time. Telehealth and digital transformation fell into this category pre-COVID. Both have now speeded adoption to near light speed. Other advances have also had immediate transformative impact. AI’s use in drug discovery, for instance. 2020 may have been the inflection point where its use became essential for drug developers to maintain a competitive edge.

The use of AI in bio/pharma represents a tectonic shift in the way our industry discovers drugs. Consider the story of German biotech firm Evotec, which recently announced a Phase 1 trial of their new anticancer compound. Evotec partnered with Exscientia, who applies AI to small molecule drug discovery. “Where it might have taken the traditional discovery process 4–5 years to come up with the drug candidate—an A2 receptor antagonist designed to help T cells fight solid tumors—it was found in 8 months by harnessing Exscientia’s ‘Centaur Chemist’ AI design platform.”

Gene Editing Takes Off
CRISPR became (almost) a household word over the last year or so as gene editing received its due. In October of 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors which can cut any kind of DNA molecule at a specific location. CRISPR is likely to have a major impact on our ability not to treat but actually cure genetic conditions such as sickle cell disease, hemophilia and genetic immune deficiencies, as well as some cancers.

A Wealth of New Drugs & Drug Candidates
The FDA approved 53 novel drugs in 2020, up from 48 the year prior. 21 of the 53 novel drugs approved in 2020 (40%) were identified as first-in-class. There were an additional 948 generic drug approvals, of which 72 were deemed first-time generics. Through mid-September 2021, we have seen 37 new drugs approved, not counting vaccines.

In addition to COVID-related treatments, the list of novel drugs included an osteoporosis drug which can strengthen bones to prevent breaks, a new statin alternative with fewer side effects and the first drug in a new class to treat HIV-1. Additional drugs were approved for malaria, Ebola, Chagas disease, Parkinson’s, migraines, MS, spinal & Duchenne muscular atrophy, ulcerative colitis, osteomalacia, heart failure, diabetes, growth hormone deficiency, lung, thyroid, prostate, bladder & breast cancers, thyroid eye disease and many more. Drug candidates in 2020 also included an immunotherapy candidate to prevent peanut allergies.

Heart Disease Research
Key advances in the field of heart disease last year ranged from a Phase 3 study for a compound to treat hypertrophic cardiomyopathy to new potential treatments for atrial fibrillation, to the use of SGLT2 inhibitors to help patients with heart failure. The key takeaway from 2020 and 2021, according to the American Heart Association, has been the necessity of applying an interdisciplinary, comprehensive approach to treatment. It’s a lesson that was applied well beyond the cardiovascular space, as anyone following COVID research and drug development can attest.

Advances in Oncology
Cancer research may have slowed down, but the advances that have been made were significant. From the discovery of new genes which help lung and breast cancers grow to development work on cancer detection blood test technologies and the therapeutic targeting of genetic mutations, to a combinatorial immunotherapy for childhood brain tumors, and a drug candidate for triple-negative breast cancer to an upcoming clinical trial of a cancer vaccine, scientists studying cancer made a range of critical breakthroughs in 2020 that will be felt in the years to come.


What “under-the-radar” discoveries over the past year-and-a-half caught your attention? Share it with us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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