JPM 2022: Decentralized trials, broader service offerings and novel drugs key trends in the CRO space

Resurgent demand was a common theme for CROs presenting at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference with Icon, Syneos and PPD owner Thermo Fisher daring to look beyond the pandemic toward changing industry needs.

New study methods, emerging therapeutic technologies and buoyant financial markets are opportunities for the CRO sector, according to Icon CEO Steve Cutler, Ph.D.

He told delegates decentralized trials would be a major growth area, explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased public awareness about clinical trials and made sponsors more willing to use new approaches to minimize the potential impact of site closures.

“At the start of the pandemic we had to pivot very quickly to move trials that we had ongoing to a much more remote-focused and decentralized approach," Cutler said. “And as we come out of the pandemic, hopefully, we believe there’s a real opportunity to develop that approach."

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He continued, "As we go forward, most of the trials we run will have a decentralized component.”

In addition to new study methods, Cutler said emerging therapeutic technologies like mRNA and checkpoint inhibitors are growth opportunities for CROs, predicting demand from the pharma and biotech sectors would increase.

“The biotech companies continue to be well capitalized," Cutler said. "The capital market has attenuated a little bit over the last few quarters, but they are still extremely well funded, and a number of our customers have very, very full balance sheets and money to spend.”

Cutler also spoke about the acquisition of PRA Health Sciences, predicting the move would increase revenue and capacity. Shortly after the presentation Icon predicted 2022 revenue would be in the $7.7 billion to $8.05 billion range, up 43 to 46% year on year.

Syneos Health

Syneos Health is setting its sights on helping small, midsize and large pharmas bridge the gap between clinical development and commercialization. 

“We’ve really built an organization that is starting to fire across all capabilities. Really purpose built to accelerate the success of our customers," CEO Alistair Macdonald said during the company's JPM presentation. "We do that by thinking with a product development mind set right across the business.”

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He cited the recent acquisitions of trial recruitment firm StudyKIK and AI-powered data analytics group RXDataScience as major drivers in 2022.

“We’ve been investing really in tech-enabled differentiated products that enable us to open the taps on enrollment, identify patients and bring them through the process,” Macdonald said, adding that home health organization Illingworth, which was acquired in 2020, is also part of the strategy.

He highlighted midsize pharma and the emerging biotech sector as a particular growth area for Syneos, adding that the acquisition of Synteract in late 2020 had built on the customer base established by INC Research.

Thermo Fisher/PPD

Buying PPD to enter the trials space was a “natural extension” for Thermo Fisher, according to CEO Marc Casper. He told delegates at the conference that the $17.4 billion buyout “gives us the opportunity to partner with our customers to really go now from the beginning of a scientific idea all the way through the approved medicine, equipping their labs with cutting edge research tools.”

PPD customers have welcomed the deal, according to Casper, who said the “dialogue is about what are the other opportunities now that we have because of the full range of Thermo Fisher capabilities.”

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Existing Thermo customers that have not worked with PPD have also expressed interest in the CRO, Casper said. He explained that the firm saw a similar dynamic when it acquired CDMO Patheon in 2017.

Casper also stressed that while the move into the CRO space was driven by a desire to cover more stages of the product development process, at present Thermo Fisher has no plans to buy into the preclinical sector.