AstraZeneca IT chief talks up Big Data amid R&D turmoil

AZN Chief Technology Officer Angela Yochem

As AstraZeneca ($AZN) overhauls one of the least productive R&D organizations in the industry, its technology chief delivered some upbeat insights about the role of Big Data and computing in combating and even curing disease. In her comments at a Big Data meeting, Chief Technology Officer Angela Yochem highlighted how large-scale data collected from genomic and other studies are advancing more precise attacks on disease.

"This sort of thing will lead to the elimination of most curable diseases," said Yochem, as quoted by the U.K.'s Computing website.

AstraZeneca's investors would love to see some more cures gush forth from the giant's much-maligned pipeline, yet the company may not see its embrace of Big Data deliver such drugs for years. As Forbes reported last year, the AZ pipeline yielded only 5 approved therapies from 1997 to 2011 at a staggering cost of $11.7 billion in R&D dollars spent per new therapy--the worst ratio among major pharma companies. This lack of productivity is unsustainable and has prompted three reorganizations in R&D over the past three years, including new CEO Pascal Soriot's most recent overhaul revealed this week with 1,600 jobs on the chopping block and 2,500 positions moving to other company sites.

Yet Yochem and her team have acknowledged the limitations of available data. For instance, medical records store mountains of data on patients' diseases, yet it's been a chore to transition those records from paper to digital formats and overcome hurdles to sharing the information with drug researchers. "The availability of data [is still an obstacle]," said Yochem, as quoted by Computing. "Some of that is due to privacy concerns or regulations, but also because the medical records are on paper in someone's office. It's a shame because that data is lost to us."

In January, AZ's head of research information John Reynders (a 2013 Fierce Biotech Techie) framed part of the Big Data challenge in biotech, and he has been clear that amassing dizzying amount of data on diseases and genomes alone isn't going to speed up to pursuit of new therapies. Pharma needs smart scientists to know what they are looking for in the deep wells of complex data.  

"Big Data is only going to be as good as the questions that are being asked of it," Reynders said at a FierceBiotech event in January. "It's the human element in the loop that's able to interrogate that data."  

- see the item from Computing

Slideshow: Big Data Biopharma Forum

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