Dr. Steve Arlington on the barriers to effective collaboration in life sciences

The President of the Pistoia Alliance explains how we can drive innovation through collaboration

Pharma IQ

In this interview we spoke to Dr. Steve Arlington, President of the Pistoia Alliance and a recognized 'Champion of Change' in the Medicine Maker 100 Power List. He shares insight into how both cultural and technical issues create barriers for collaboration, why collaboration can accelerate industry success and how it could benefit patient access. 

Read More: Jay Campbell shares the missing link to effective research collaboration


Pharma IQ: What do you think are the biggest barriers to collaboration in the industry?

Steve: “Life science is a heavily regulated industry which fiercely protects what it sees as proprietary property. Between worrying about breaking regulatory rules and a fear of giving away too much information to competitors, life science companies haven’t tended towards collaboration.  

“There are more tangible, technical issues too. Recent M&A activity has left companies with a plethora of research and data tools that hamper sharing and that need rationalising. Data formats also vary widely between companies; some may be using ‘off the shelf’ tools, while others may have invested millions in building their own in-house systems. This makes sharing data between companies and potential collaborators much more difficult, hampering those in the industry who want to work collaboratively.”


Pharma IQ: How is a lack of collaboration holding the industry back?

Steve: “To overcome the problems that society is facing today – from antibiotic resistance to Zika – sharing, partnering and collaborating within the life science industry will be essential to increased innovation. As a society, we are currently within years of being able to understand our populations in-depth through data and technology.

To realise all this promised potential will require collaboration between many different types of organisation. From cybersecurity experts that can ensure the sovereignty of patient data, to technology firms that can create RFID chips to monitor patients, to drug companies that can safely advise on dosage for each patient. Life sciences companies that refuse to collaborate with peers will find themselves falling behind the rest of the market.”

Related: The three components for better collaboration between healthcare and big pharma


Pharma IQ: Can you share an example of an action taken to break down barriers to collaboration?

Steve: “The Pistoia Alliance was formed to overcome barriers to collaboration; it has a proven legal framework to negate legal concerns, under which members can form collaborative projects. A good example of the collaborative approach on informatics is The Pistoia Alliance’s project, with Pfizer and multiple organisations in the pharmaceutical industry on, ‘HELM’ (Hierarchical Editing Language for Macromolecules). The project aimed to create an open-source standard for biomolecular language that all researchers can use, creating a single notation that can encode the structure of all biomolecules. HELM has been widely adopted by life sciences companies, scientific publishers and regulatory agencies, including the FDA. With a common language in use, informatics solutions become interoperable and a large barrier to innovation is overcome.”


Pharma IQ: How will collaboration improve in the life sciences industry in the next 5 years?

Steve: “Collaboration between participants from different domains is an opportunity to use their expertise to advance science as a whole, rather than toiling on projects individually. Projects pursued by just one company often fall by the wayside; either because it isn’t core to the business or due to a lack of skills in-house, which typically means projects are eventually outsourced. Collaboration can help maintain the momentum of these projects.

“Collaboration is also better for health payers – whether the NHS or private health insurers – by reducing the cost of treatments and improving access to healthcare. It also hugely benefits patients, by accelerating the time it takes to deliver new therapeutics or delivering better solutions to common health problems.  Consistency across companies is currently non-existent and the standards are not in place, but working together as an industry can make these solutions viable.

“To allow technology and science to evolve at the same rate, all of the experts need to be in the same room at the same time, collaborating. There is little point, for example, in creating an ingestible nano-machine whose data is incompatible with the software a hospital uses, or that can’t be read by the patient. Collaboration can connect all of the links in the chain to take advantage of the huge opportunities that diagnostic advances offer.”


Did you enjoy this article? Read more about collaboration in this case study of how J&J increased internal and external collaboration for their compound management