By 2020, R&D times may be shortened by two-thirds, success rates could dramatically increase and clinical trial costs could be slashed with the help of computer-based technologies, according to a new report.

The study, from PricewaterhouseCoopers and entitled Pharma 2020: Virtual R&D, which path will you take?, argues that new technologies will create “a greater understanding of the biology of disease”. It adds that the evolution of ‘virtual man’ will enable researchers to predict the effects of new compounds before they enter humans.

The study argues that many of the medicines launched in the 1990s will expire over the next few years, “leaving pharma very exposed and only four out of the top 10 companies have enough products in their pipelines to fill the impending revenue gap”. As such, “incremental improvements to R&D are no longer enough,” says Steve Arlington, global pharmaceutical and life sciences industry advisory leader at PwC.

The report claims that some companies using virtual technology have reduced clinical trial times by 40% and cut the number of patients required by two-thirds. Virtually-modelled molecules will still have to be tested in ‘real’ humans but big pharma will be able to optimise their trial designs and minimise the number of patients on whom new medicines are tested. “They will develop treatments which have value in the eyes of patients, healthcare payers and for the companies themselves”, the study adds.

Anthony Farino, US pharmaceutical and life sciences advisory leader at PwC, added that these new technologies “will also deliver substantial savings - they could collectively halve development times and attrition rates, thereby reducing costs per drug dramatically”. He went on to say that overhauling R&D requires a decision on whether a firm wants to produce mass-market medicines or speciality therapies, where they want to be located geographically to have access to the best skills or cost base and whether they want to outsource most of their R&D or keep it in-house.

“The choices they make will have a profound bearing on the business models and mix of skills they require as well as the skills of those who support them,’ Mr Farino said. He added that “connectivity – technological, intellectual and social – will ultimately enable us to make sense of ourselves and the diseases from which we suffer.”