Sufferers of chronic diseases often require frequent prescriptions and regular contact with physicians, as well as hospital visits, operations and a care service up to and including palliative care. The pharmaceutical industry can contribute to managing these problems in a variety of ways. Research into new drugs for the illnesses mentioned and other age-related ailments, including hearing and vision loss, will remain the foundation of the industry. However, beyond traditional drug research, there are also very promising and innovative approaches to geriatrics found in related disciplines, such as biomedicine — for example, in the area of preventive or regenerative medicine.
The goal of regenerative medicine is to heal illnesses by restoring malfunctioning cells, tissue and organs. This can be achieved via a biological substitute, such as by using tissue cultures, by stimulating the body’s own regeneration and repair processes, and through gene therapy.
Another potential biomedical advance is the development of senolytic medications, which kill aging cells in a targeted manner. These cells cease their cell division, accumulate over time and accelerate the aging process. Destroying them could significantly improve people’s health as they age.
And beyond the usual molecular approach, the pharmaceutical industry is creating new opportunities, particularly in the area of services associated with age-related diseases. Many of these services will have something to do with digitalization, often the processing of data — mostly patient data — and the provision of feedback. When it comes to measuring therapy success and assessing remuneration, this service will become more important in the coming years.
These forms of service can benefit both the pharmaceutical industry itself and individual patients. There are already providers that collect individual customer’s health data on a continual basis in order to come up with behavioral and decision-making suggestions for the customer while also gathering general scientific data. Other innovative approaches in the digital universe include gamification (use of game-like elements in non-game contexts), bioelectronics and artificial intelligence.
In a later phase, the industry — together with partners — could fully enter the service business. Innovative medical devices, new forms of in vitro diagnostics, and telemedicine could open up completely new opportunities for home care. The Japanese Government is ascribing particular significance to this field of work. According to its research-based insights, many elderly people only require minimal support in order to continue to live independently.
Working together to demonstrate what can be achieved at low cost, Japan Post (a Japanese postal, banking and insurance service provider), IBM and Apple are offering tablets loaded with age-appropriate apps and linked to cloud services in an effort to improve the quality of life of older people.
The subscription service will, for example, remind users when they have a doctor’s appointment or need to take their medication, encourage them to exercise, update their diet and nutritional needs and call their attention to local activities. By 2020, the project aims to cover around 5 million households. The Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai is planning a similar campaign with its partner NTT, a Japanese telecoms company.
These examples show two things: firstly, there are many creative initiatives underway that aim to solve the problems associated with an aging population. And secondly, these initiatives involve extremely varied players, many of whom have previously had no connection with the pharmaceutical industry.
If pharmaceutical companies want to participate in this expansion of the business of providing care to seniors, they will need new business models that include partnerships that allow them to tap into competencies not currently found in the industry. And they will need to embrace innovation that goes beyond traditional pharmaceutical research.