Where are the opportunities in global drug discovery?

With COVID-19 taking centre stage in global drug discovery, Lu Rahman looks at opportunities ahead for the sector and where attention might be focussed going forward.

 It is clear from the current pandemic that opportunities arise within drug discovery and development when we don’t always expect them. COVID-19 has created an immense global effort centred around finding vaccines and therapeutics for a virus that has had huge impact on all our lives as well as the health and well-being of thousands. COVID-19 aside, additional factors play out creating the need for the sector to react to unmet needs – for instance, a rising global population, the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, illness cause by lifestyle – creating demand for new and improved drugs and vaccines. Indeed, it is estimated that the global drug discovery market is on course to grow exponentially during the forecasting period 2019-2027 in terms of revenue at a CAGR of 8.28% (ResearchandMarkets.com).

COVID-19 highlights the speed at which the global pharmaceutical sector can react to find vaccines and treatments when under pressure. Companies such as AstraZeneca in the UK have been at the forefront of vaccine development and at the time of writing, the company announced that the first participants had been dosed in a Phase I trial of AZD7442, a combination of two monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) in development for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19.

Technological opportunity

The ability to work at speed and with precision is crucial if researchers are to compete on the global stage. COVID-19 has highlighted how the need for the development of drugs and the creation of new vaccines can arise with little warning. But within this lies opportunity. In recent years the availability of tools to help the sector react swiftly and safely, has become increasingly important. Artificial intelligence and bioinformatics platforms – which offer streamlined ways of storing, organising, analysing and accessing data – are creating opportunity within the drug discovery process. These systems allow to better candidate identification. Researchers are able work with huge amounts of data which can significantly speed up therapeutic development time. According to Transparency Market Research:“The growth of global medical bioinformatics market is driven by increasing initiatives and funding, use of bioinformatics in drug discovery and biomarkers. The market is expected to offer opportunities with the introduction and adoption of upcoming technologies such as cloud computing and other sequencing technologies. The global medical bioinformatics market can be segmented by tools approved from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or European Federation for Medical informatics (EFMI) for further research process”.

In its 2020 Global Life Sciences Outlook Report, Deloitte recognises that AI will make drug discovery “and development more innovative, time-effective, and cost-effective”. It is crucial that companies look at this technology and the value it can bring to improving efficiencies both financially and in terms of time. The report notes: “Competition for AI talent will likely be fierce, and biopharma companies should not let traditional thinking and legacy cultures put them at a disadvantage. Emerging technologies could also positively drive change throughout each stage of the supply chain—leading to enhanced value to patients.”

As we have seen with the development of COVID-19 vaccines, collaboration has been a key driver. We are seeing partnerships across all stages of the drug development process with research teams and universities sharing expertise across the chain to increase the chances of success. It is here also where technology can play a key role, facilitating the speed and accuracy of global collaboration between academia through to biotech and biopharma organisations.

Unmet needs

It is widely reported that the leading cause of death on a global scale is cardiovascular disease (CVD). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year—that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.1,2 In India, estimates similarly attribute one in four deaths to this disease while in Europe, the European Heart Network  says that CVD  accounts for 45% of all deaths in Europe and 37% of all deaths in the EU.

Despite the prevalence of the disease, there is still work to be done on treating CVD. The authors of Cardiovascular disease models: A game changing paradigm in drug discovery and screening3 make the pointthat: “Although investment in drug discovery and development has been sky-rocketing, the number of approved drugs has been declining. Cardiovascular toxicity due to therapeutic drug use claims the highest incidence and severity of adverse drug reactions in late-stage clinical development. Therefore, to address this issue, new, additional, replacement and combinatorial approaches are needed to fill the gap in effective drug discovery and screening. The motivation for developing accurate, predictive models is twofold: first, to study and discover new treatments for cardiac pathologies which are leading in worldwide morbidity and mortality rates; and second, to screen for adverse drug reactions on the heart, a primary risk in drug development.”

This paper was written pre-COVID. Since the onset of the pandemic, the need for CVD treatment has increased as highlighted by a recent European Society of Cardiology (ESC) and the European Heart Network (EHN) virtual event “Fighting cardiovascular disease – a blueprint for EU action”.

The ESC stated that the call for bold and urgent action by the EU to address the increasing burden of cardiovascular disease (CVD) is even greater in the context of COVID-19. More than 60 million people live with CVD in the EU, and close to 13 million new cases of CVD are diagnosed every year. COVID-19 triggers an inflammatory response which can damage the heart and blood vessels, and increase the risk of blood clotting, leading to heart attacks, strokes and pulmonary embolism, underlining the need for viable treatments and preventions.

Opportunity exists here for drug discovery and development. Co-Chair of the MEP Heart Group Maria da Graça Carvalho MEP commented: “There are still so many areas of unmet needs in CVD. The new EU Framework Programme for Research Horizon Europe should support investment in cardiovascular research and innovation covering from basic to translational clinical research allowing for new discoveries that can have a significant impact on the burden of cardiovascular diseases and have a significant impact on the lives of millions of people.”


From diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis to Crohn’s disease, biologics have become a successful and fast-growing range of therapeutics, some of them treating conditions were no therapy previously existed. There has been much press in recent years as many biological drugs hit patent expiration, opening the door to the biosimilar market. So what of the biologic market itself – are there still opportunities to be created? Yes, says David Bottom and Clare Davies at IQVIA. In their report Asthma Market: Biologics Key Driver Of Value Growth Over The Next Decade, the authors reveal: “IQVIA anticipates the value of the global asthma market will reach $29bn by 2029, representing a 59% increase and a CAGR of 2% between 2019 and 2029. This increase will result from steady growth in demand and the launch of new therapies. During the same period, global prescription volume is expected to grow at a CAGR of 1.2% and new combination inhalation therapies consisting of long-acting beta agonists, corticosteroids and muscarinic antagonists are anticipated to launch. The most significant impact on value sales, however, will come from the availability of new monoclonal antibodies.”

And despite the loss of patent protection Bottom and Davies say that the availability of new therapies will generally offset the anticipated revenue losses here.

Volume 21, Issue 4 – Fall 2020

Main image credit: Brett Zeck


1[ref:Benjamin EJ, Muntner P, Alonso A, Bittencourt MS, Callaway CW, Carson AP, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2019 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2019;139(10):e56–528.

2 Fryar CD, Chen T-C, Li X. Prevalence of uncontrolled risk factors for cardiovascular disease: United States, 1999–2010 pdf icon[PDF-494K]. NCHS data brief, no. 103. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics; 2012. Accessed May 9, 2019.]

3 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0142961218306811


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