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Pandemic turns spotlight on medical innovation

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Vaccines developed at record speed, new technologies and a flood of new research projects – Covid-19 has truly focused attention on medical innovation. But what does that term cover and how has the pandemic affected our views on innovations in medicine and healthcare?

Spring 2020 saw Covid-19 spread around the world and researchers quickly mobilised in the fight against the pandemic. In the space of just one year, four approved vaccines have now reached the market in Europe and three in the USA, with more on the way. Under normal circumstances, this would be considered impossible, as traditional vaccine research usually takes up to ten years.

“The public debate is all about capacity and wanting more vaccine faster. It’s easy to forget just what an incredible achievement this already is,” says researcher Bastian Rake.

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Bastian Rake
Bastian Rake

Bastian Rake works at Maynooth University in Ireland, but is also affiliated with U-GOT KIES (Gothenburg network for Knowledge-intensive Innovative Ecosystems), run by the Department of Economy and Society within the School of Business, Economics and Law. He mentions new vaccines and pharmaceuticals as good examples of what medical innovation can look like, but the term is broader than that. Medical innovation may, for example, be about new diagnostic methods or new treatments that are made available to a large group of people. It may also be about new ways of producing medical technology and pharmaceuticals.

“The pandemic has really focused minds on the need for medical innovation,” continues Bastian Rake.

Creating and implementing medical innovations requires close collaboration between different actors, such as medical research, technical universities, the health service and businesses in the sector. This is the conclusion drawn by Rögnvaldur Sæmundsson from the University of Iceland, who is also a part-time researcher in the Unit for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the School of Business, Economics and Law. In a current research project, he is investigating how the exchange of knowledge between researchers and PhD students at Sahlgrenska University Hospital and Chalmers University of Technology, organizations that have been working together for more than 70 years, is linked to medical innovation.

 “It's essential for society that such hubs are created and made to work well for an extended period of time. These intersections of different competencies are where medical innovation happens. At the same time, medical innovation must be able to take place in a safe way and ethical issues must be considered. In order to avoid crises in trust, as in the Maccharini case, it's therefore important to develop regulations that are fit for the purpose,” says Rögnvaldur Sæmundsson.

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Rögnvaldur Sæmundsson
Rögnvaldur Sæmundsson

Vaccine research stands out in emerging economies

The main focus of medical innovation tends to be on public health issues in the rich parts of the world, such as cancer and various kinds of cardiovascular disease. There is still a lack of affordable pharmaceuticals that can meet the needs of developing countries. There has been a recent increase in the transfer of medical research, particularly clinical testing, to countries such as China and India, which could promote the development of medical innovation in these countries. However, a study conducted by Bastian Rake, along with fellow researcher Carolin Haeussler, shows that local researchers are rarely involved in the analysis and publication of the research results. Here, Western researchers continue to dominate, and it is primarily in the West that the results are shared with the research community.

“If local researchers had been involved throughout the process and able to apply the results to their own work, this would very likely have driven the development of medical innovation in these countries. Often, insufficient capacity has been built up to make this possible. But things are changing in China, for example, which is investing heavily in research and development, and the amount of published academic papers originating from China is seeing a steep rise.”

Vaccine research, however, does not fit the general picture. In recent months, there have been reports about Russian and Chinese vaccines against Covid-19 being used in some European countries. Generally speaking, emerging economies are relatively well placed to develop vaccines, according to Bastian Rake.

“In Europe and other Western countries, we haven’t always been aware of successful innovations from vaccine manufacturers in emerging economies, since these innovations often treat diseases that are relatively uncommon in the West. Western solutions that require stable refrigeration chains are also not always best for countries that lack this type of infrastructure.”

Scepticism about new innovations

Many people hope that the Covid-19 vaccine will soon mean a return to normal life. Yet it has also become apparent that a large section of society is highly sceptical about having the vaccination. Rögnvaldur Sæmundsson suggests that the younger generation, who have not personally experienced the benefits of vaccines, may be inclined to take the effect for granted. In addition, most of us would prefer to wait until new innovations have become well established and there is clear evidence that the benefits outweigh the risks. Nevertheless, he is confident that many people will want to vaccinate themselves against Covid-19.

“For us to embrace a medical innovation, it has to bring a significant positive change to our life. For many people, the chance to be able to move freely and have a normal life again greatly outweighs the possible risks from the new Covid-19 vaccine.”

Information and transparency may be critical factors in giving people the courage to try a medical innovation.

“During the pandemic, the authorities here in Iceland, for example, have put all the information about Covid-19 into the public arena and kept it regularly updated. That way people know how they need to behave and it’s easier to make informed decisions.”

New actors investing in healthcare innovations

The huge demand for innovation during the pandemic has led companies not usually associated with pharmaceuticals, biotechnology or medical equipment to get involved in new healthcare developments. Bastian Rake gives the example of Mercedes’ Formula One team, which has designed ventilators and digital technology for use in contact tracing. There has also been a great deal of experimentation into how existing pharmaceuticals can be used to treat Covid-19, as addressed in a study published recently by Bastian Rake and fellow researcher Marvin Hanisch. There are a number of challenges in this area.

“For example, we saw numerous clinical studies focusing on a limited number of pharmaceuticals, like the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, despite it quickly proving to have little effect against Covid-19. This indicates a lack of coordination and information exchange between researchers. Overall, however, the pandemic had a positive impact on medical innovation. It will be exciting to see whether this is a lasting trend.”

About

Bastian Rake, Maynooth University in Ireland. Bastian Rake is also affiliated with U-GOT KIES (Gothenburg network for Knowledge-intensive Innovative Ecosystems).

His research focuses on how the collaboration between individuals or organisations affects the generation of knowledge and innovation in knowledge-intensive industries, particularly in biotech and pharmaceuticals. He also studies the internationalisation of science, research and development within these sectors.

Bastan Rake’s study of existing drugs that have been tested as a treatment for Covid-19: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/radm.12461

Rögnvaldur Sæmundsson, Háskóli Íslands in Iceland. Rögnvaldur Sæmundsson is a part-time researcher at the Unit for Innovation and Entrepreneurship within the School of Business, Economics and Law, and is also affiliated with U-GOT KIES. His research focuses on how the knowledge exchange between universities and the health sector can be tied into medical innovation, and on new ways of working within healthcare.

U-GOT KIES (University of Gothenburg Center for Knowledge-intensive Innovative Ecosystems) is a newly formed research centre at the University of Gothenburg, which will officially start on 1 July 2021. U-GOT KIES will focus on research on knowledge-intensive ecosystems and their impact of well-being and economic growth of societies. More information.