Collaborating for healthier lives

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In the rapidly evolving healthcare space, it is essential for all companies – even big pharma – to keep up with how the sector is changing. Tom Aelbrecht, Head of the Janssen Campus Office at Janssen Pharmaceuticals, discusses future challenges in healthcare and how his company plans to deal with them.

Get your priorities straight

“Staying successful starts with establishing priorities and setting goals for making meaningful progress as a company,” Aelbrecht says. “Because of the long development time of new products, setting ambitious goals is essential. When products reach the market, 10 years after the goals were set, they still need to be relevant. For example, curing and preventing cancer is not yet possible, but we’re building the science to get us there. This is also the case for the other disease areas in which we are active.”

“In addition to setting ambitious goals, you also have to outline a vision,” Aelbrecht continues. “Healthcare of the future will not just revolve around curing diseases. Prenatal profiling will evaluate an individual’s risk profile for specific diseases. Products such as vaccines or lifestyle-related solutions will be marketed to prevent these diseases. To create such products, more insight into these diseases is needed so that their triggers can be identified and avoided.

Prevention is better than cure

“We should also look at how we can diagnose diseases as early as possible in their inception to intercept them and prevent them from further progressing,” he adds. “We know today that when someone gets the symptoms of Alzheimer’s later on in life at 60 to 70 years old, the first indicators were already present at the age of 40. Once the disease is diagnosed, we need new treatments that precisely target the actual trigger of the disease. Furthermore, in order to ensure the most optimal treatment, we also have to think about the caregivers. Today we are very good at developing and validating the solutions, but we are very poor at adopting these new solutions in the real healthcare environment. Finally, there is the aftercare. Once a patient is treated, how can we monitor them and make sure there is no relapse? The patient will become a continuous source of data with which we can make decisions in prevention, diagnostics and treatment. That will be the integrated solution of the future.

In a couple of years, people will say: “Can you believe it, they actually used to wait until they had a disease before doing something about it?”

“Janssen Pharmaceutica is working hard to integrate that vision into our R&D strategy,” Aelbrecht explains. “In the last year, we have launched three new research platforms. The first one is the Human Microbiome Institute, which builds on the scientific evidence that bacteria play a very crucial role in the inception of certain diseases in the body, such as diabetes or even some neurological diseases. The second is the Janssen Prevention Center, which aims to prevent certain diseases that are real challenges today, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer or HIV. Lastly, we implemented the Disease Interception Accelerator, which focuses on understanding the early triggers of diseases. Once we understand those, and how we can identify and measure them, we will be able to administer the right treatments to guarantee better outcomes in the early stages.” Hopefully in a couple of years, people will say: “Can you believe it, they actually used to wait until they had a disease before doing something about it?”

Choose your experts

For now, though, there are still a lot of high unmet medical needs in all therapeutic areas. “As a company, you cannot be active in all of these diseases simultaneously without help,” Aelbrecht says. “In order to progress, you have to work together with the experts, wherever they reside globally. This forces us as an organization to change, as you have to prepare yourself to collaborate with the external world. Something like a partnering index will become a core competency for the winners of the future. You need to be able to collaborate throughout the entire value chain.

“To set up valuable partnerships, we have created a global innovation network,” Aelbrecht continues. “This consists of four Innovation Centers in hotspots such as San Francisco, Boston, London and Shanghai. They are becoming a key component of how we get access to new science and technology.” In the past few years, Janssen has evaluated close to 3,000 opportunities, leading to 80 structural collaborations. Once a partner is selected, it is a matter of bringing together the expertise that is needed to accelerate the innovation. In a collaborative environment, this can happen through licensing or through incubator models that are tailored to the environment where you’re harvesting or trying to find new science. “In the US, we have launched 5 JLABS incubators, a model that works very well in the US environment,” Aelbrecht says. “While the science and technology is also present in Europe, we need individuals to become more entrepreneurial. For that reason, we have developed a new incubation model, called JLINX, that is tailored to the European culture.”

Together we can become the Silicon Valley of healthcare.

Aelbrecht concludes: “Our region is a knowledgeable and fruitful ecosystem for healthcare innovation. We have all the required world-class components available, from research centers in life sciences to research institutes in nanotechnology, universities, companies in the biotech scene, large multinationals, investors and a healthcare system that can implement the solutions.” However, he also sees important areas for improvement: “The walls between these stakeholders should be torn down. We are a very small region that is globally competitive. Still, too often provinces and regions act as if they have to compete locally. We have to collaborate across all these institutions, or other regions will beat us in essential aspects such as securing funding. So tear down the walls, be constructive, collaborate across the borders and be competitive on a global scale. Together we can become the Silicon Valley of healthcare.”

This article is a report of the keynote presentation by Tom Aelbrecht, Head of the Janssen Campus Office at Janssen Pharmaceuticals, on the Janssen – FlandersBio Partnerday, March 3, 2016