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How research firm Icon is using analytics and wearables to enhance clinical trials

The company is investing in emergent technology to boost the attractiveness of trials as a care option and attract more participants, while enhancing internal efficiency around drug and device development.

Contract research firm Icon is preparing to ramp up the use of analytics and wearable technologies to increase the appeal of clinical trials as a care option and to boost efficiency of its operations.

With a market cap of $7.17bn, Icon employs a 14,000-strong workforce providing outsourced development services to global pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device companies, around the development, management and analysis of programs supporting clinical development process including patient recruitment and trials.

About 70,000 to 100,000 patients are currently taking part in clinical trials handled by Icon in nearly 100 locations around the world. According to chief information officer (CIO) Tom O’Leary, one of his core areas of focus for future development is placing the patient at the centre of drug development, while making “patients realise and understand the opportunity that they have in clinical trials and the care options available to them”.

According to the CIO, data that has been gathered over nearly two decades by Icon shows that patients who do participate in clinical trials and have access to care delivered to their condition, perform better than those who don’t participate in clinical trials.

“There’s real benefit in terms of getting access to novel therapy or capabilities, getting a closer monitoring of conditions and the specifics that might relate to them from a genetic or genomic perspective, so [trial participants] can get a more targeted care than those patients that don’t have the opportunity to take part in clinical trials,” said O’Leary.

“We really want to leverage technology to make it easier for patients to participate in clinical trials,” he said. “The more patients that we have the opportunity to inform about clinical trials as care options, the faster we can bring drugs and devices that are better than current therapies to patients and have them experiencing the benefits. That’s our biggest goal.”

In addition to how it recruits patients today, O’Leary added that Icon is going to do more social listening to identify where it can get prospective patients through online channels that are not currently used to a larger extent.

Virtualising clinical trials

O’Leary’s data-led strategy also aims to boost internal efficiency. According to the CIO that would mean making clinical trials data more accessible, reducing processes for patients and sites where trials take place while getting a greater amount of data about drugs or devices being tested as patients go about their daily lives. The idea is to advance the pace and reduce the cost of drug and device development.

Within that strand of work, a priority is to further virtualise the clinical trial setting, taking advantage of technologies that can improve information gathering such as wearable devices worn by the patient or put in the patient’s home.

By being able to collect information on areas such as sleep, movement and activity remotely, the company hopes to get access to more accurate information while reducing patients’ need for in-person clinician visits.

“[Use of wearables] means we can gather more of that [patient’s] data and understand in real time what’s happening with our drug or device, whereas previously that information was captured either on paper or using electronic data capture tools to record information about the patient,” said O’Leary.

“With sensory and device technology we can capture [data] in real time, analyse it and feed it back to the patient as well, so they can understand how they are progressing and how they compare with other patients who might be also managing or dealing with that disease or condition.

“That enables us to interact with patients in a way that previously wasn't possible, having information shared with them and advising them on what they can do to better manage the disease they may be dealing with,” he said.

A burgeoning business

By building patient profiles and informing them about propensity to diseases and conditions, as well as what life choices they can make, Icon hopes to help people keep healthier for longer: “We all ultimately become patients, but [patients with access to health information] only become a patient at a much later slate in their lives,” said O’Leary.

Delivering data to patients about their health is fast becoming a burgeoning business, according to the CIO, who believes that “everyone sees the opportunity of that” in the sector.

“Telecom companies, for example, are looking into how they can create a different paradigm for the future in terms of how patients disease and indications are managed and treated and how the capabilities they offer can be a companion to patients and how they manage disease or conditions,” he said.

Advancing into more sophisticated use of data and other emergent tech follows a digital transformation strategy that has been actively developed at Icon over the last 18 months.

The company is already reaping results from the investment in projects under the plan, such as improved communication and collaboration with the pharma, biotech and medical device companies it works with through a digital platform encompassing video, chat and data sharing tools supplied by Dimension Data.

“We’ve transformed the way we run and organise things as simple as meetings: we do them far more now using video technology and a number of collaboration platforms: we invested quite significantly there,” said O’Leary. 

Read more about analytics

Desktop virtualisation to cover the company’s global workforce with Citrix has been another highlight of the digital transformation.

In addition, Icon also sought to bring many of its core systems to the cloud, with the implementation of Salesforce and Workday systems in addition to a combination of proprietary systems and off-the-shelf platforms supplied by large suppliers like Oracle and various life sciences technology suppliers.

O’Leary said the company is well-placed in terms of the fundamentals required to evolve its strategy to grow analytics and continue to digitise patients and platforms underpinning its clinical trials activity.

“Everyone is working hard to improve drugs and devices, and to restore the quality of life of those patients that are there with more targeted therapies,” he said. “The opportunity to leverage technologies that are able to do that is immense.”

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