With pharmaceutical companies facing rising pressure to expand their pipelines and accelerate their discovery cycle, forward-thinking organizations are recognizing the vast potential of working across disciplines to drive innovation. Indeed, many of the most promising developments, such as novel drug delivery mechanisms and new therapeutic classes, are now focused at the intersections of scientific fields historically seen as disparate.
However, that traditional view of pharmaceutical research, biology and chemistry as well-separated scientific disciplines has generated domain and information siloes that hinder innovation. This perception is part of the fabric of the scientific world, underlying how degrees are defined, how departments are organized and how knowledge is communicated. However, approaching these disciplines as separate or “in competition” limits the scope of pharmaceutical innovation.
So, how can we break out of these siloes and capitalize on the colossal opportunities of multidisciplinary research? In this blog post, we explore the potential of taking a broader view and offer strategies that could help bridge interdisciplinary gaps to drive faster and more efficient innovation.
The promise of interdisciplinary innovation in pharmaceutical R&D
Combining expertise from different fields is allowing scientists to deliver ground-breaking new therapeutic approaches for age-old healthcare challenges. For instance, interdisciplinary research has recently yielded an ingenious strategy to deliver insulin orally. Since insulin is a peptide hormone, it is vulnerable to digestion and so is traditionally given by injection. However, as injections are inconvenient and can be unpleasant, scientists have long been searching for alternative dosing strategies. Thanks to cross-disciplinary work, it could soon be possible to take a pea-sized pill which can mechanically inject insulin into the tissues of the stomach lining, allowing patients to finally escape the hassle of subcutaneous injections. This remarkable innovation does not stem from a single field, but rather combines biology, chemistry, physics and bio-engineering all in one.
Another fascinating example is a digital pill that tracks when patients have taken their medication. A tiny sensor in the pill, when activated by stomach fluid, sends a timestamped signal via a wearable patch to a mobile app. This novel technology was originally developed to address compliance issues with schizophrenia medication – it’s not unusual for patients suffering from this condition to depart from prescribed dosing, and doctors often struggle to get a full picture of medicine-taking patterns from patient consultations. With this revolutionary new technology, doctors can now access a full record of each patient’s treatment history while increasing compliance.
Such examples illustrate the tremendous power and potential of overcoming the disconnect between traditionally separate scientific areas to improve patient outcomes. In reality, making significant progress in the evolving landscape of pharmaceutical R&D depends on an understanding of both biology and chemistry. It relies on an appreciation of the impact of fundamental physical, chemical and biological properties on the way drugs interact with the body. Indeed, integrating knowledge across multiple fields is becoming ever more important as therapies become more sophisticated. For example, the most challenging aspects in the development of biologic therapies is often mastering the formulation chemistry. Ultimately, we require a deep and cross-disciplinary knowledge of the fundamental properties of these innovative therapies to unlock their full potential.
How to bridge the disciplinary divide
Breaking down the barriers to multidisciplinary research is no simple task. To more fully capitalize on interdisciplinary innovation opportunities, we must focus on the barriers that are embedded in the foundational aspects of our organizations, culture and approaches that hinder collaboration. While this is a complex undertaking, here are several specific suggestions to help tear down these siloes.
Reassess our approach to science education
One key strategy is to update our approach to education, fostering broader knowledge across all of the core scientific disciplines. While students traditionally take a range of foundational classes in the early stages of their science degrees, they quickly must choose to concentrate on one area and their focus narrows as their education progresses. Though it is important for individual scientists to achieve great depth of study in a specific field, it is vital to stay connected to the fundamentals and recent developments in other areas that could prove critical to advancing their work. Such agility in education systems will prepare students for this fast-evolving world. Moreover, individuals must develop this broad understanding and maintain it throughout their careers – read more widely outside of their area of expertise, utilize self-training opportunities and keep their knowledge up to date by leveraging comprehensive cross-discipline scientific information collections, such as those offered by CAS.
In addition to broadening the focus within the sphere of education, promoting proactive collaboration and knowledge sharing between scientists in commercial and academic environments is a key element in the path towards more multidisciplinary innovation. If researchers can effectively leverage the expertise already available within the R&D landscape to hasten the progress of their work, this will reduce duplication of effort and drive forward new discoveries. To shift toward a more collaborative culture, the scientific community as a whole can actively seek out opportunities for sharing knowledge, insights and needs between specialties, and support the development of cross-disciplinary teams which can span industry, academia and government.
Update data management strategies
Another strategy to accelerate interdisciplinary innovation is to update the way in which scientific data is stored, analyzed and accessed. Traditionally, many information resources are segmented into separate fields, which encourages the development of knowledge siloes. To overcome this problem, scientists need broad-scope information resources that bridge these gaps.
Furthermore, by applying advanced AI and machine learning algorithms to integrated information sources, it is possible to extract truly multidisciplinary insights. However, there are a number of challenges to face when applying AI and machine learning to interdisciplinary data. For example, inconsistencies in language use between different fields can present a significant problem. To address these issues, it is critical to base data integration on ontologies, systems of representing knowledge that employ a shared vocabulary to describe different types of data and the relationships between them. In this way, it’s possible to bring heterogeneous scientific datasets together in a meaningful context. However, to build these systems effectively, it’s essential that AI algorithms are supported by human indexers, including experienced chemists, biochemists and data scientists. By combining advanced AI systems with in-depth human expertise, pharmaceutical companies can harness the benefit of multidisciplinary knowledge to drive R&D progress.
CAS solutions deliver insights from an unparalleled depth and breadth of content spanning over 80 unique scientific areas, providing convenient access to an interdisciplinary view of the research landscape. If you’d like to learn how you can connect the dots across different fields to innovate faster, contact CAS to find out how we can help.