Siva Padmanabhan, Managing Director of AstraZeneca India Private Ltd. (AZIPL), runs the bio-pharmaceutical company's Global Capability Centre (GCC) that was rebranded this April as a Global Innovation and Technology Centre (GITC). In an interview, Padmanabhan shared the progress the unit, with close to 3,000 employees, has made; how the unit helped AstraZeneca scale up its capabilities to handle vaccine development; and how AZPIL works with the Clinical Data and Insights (CDI) team to develop enterprise data products. Edited excerpts:
How has the role of your GCC unit evolved over the years?
Prior to 2014, we (AstraZeneca) were very dependent on external partners to deliver our on our IT commitments, and there was an evolving need to uplift the quality of service to the business. This was when the importance of insourcing our IT capability became very clear. Technology has now become integral to the way we work as a company. Post the successful insourcing of IT in 2014, the entity soon expanded by bringing in additional service lines such as Global Business Services in 2017, R&D (research and development) services in 2018, and now we also deal with core areas such as clinical data management that was established late last year. Today, India is one of the more than 100 markets we serve as a GCC for AstraZeneca.
How did your unit help with development of the Covid-19 vaccine?
We are proud of the role we've been able to play in the development of this vaccine (the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine). Typical vaccine development timeline is 5-6 years but this one was developed in less than a year. This posed a number of technological challenges such as ensuring the scalability of the systems used to manage every element of the value chain -- from clinical trials, procurement, supply chain management, and commercial operations. GITC played a very key role in integrating dozens of additional supply chain partners, establishing electronic connectivity, stress testing and modifying our adverse events (allergies, for example) reporting systems to handle exponentially higher volumes, designing and implementing new technology-enabled process for expiry date management, etc. The co-location of the Global Commercial Operations and Global IT and R&D services in India enabled rapid acceleration of the project.
Given that you are a pharma and life sciences company, how are you also using visualization tools and technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)?
We use a number of technologies like Extended Reality (XR), which includes AR and VR. These technologies have huge potential to transform the entire life sciences industry. We are seeing a number of applications -- for example, visualizing how a particular drug interacts inside the body, and how it targets certain types of cells etc. Besides, before patients who come into the clinical trials, they can get a virtual experience of what to expect at the trial site- by putting on a pair of VR glasses, they can see how every step of participating in the trial looks like, such as Trial site set-up, tests to be administered, as well as the actual administration of the drug itself, as well as ongoing check-ins. This puts them at ease participating in the trial and is truly a patient-centric way to use this technology.
On the manufacturing side, we are seeing huge applications in the way we train our operators – with VR and even with haptic gloves. Hence, before they have to operate the machine, they can visualize as well as feel everything. Physicians now can visualize how the drug works inside the body and get an idea of the symptoms and side effects. So instead of a medical representative just handing out flyers, you can actually give physicians a complete experience of how that product works inside the human body and what potential side effects may look like.
How does AZIPL work with your Clinical Data and Insights (CDI) division?
That team (CDI) is very high skilled. They have a lot of experience in the pharmaceutical domain on how to extract actionable insights from disparate data sources using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. We blend that with the deep technology expertise and the data engineering capability we've built. On the IT side, today we are much faster in creating data products. Earlier, when we used to get a problem, we would try to solve it by going into what data inputs were required and building a data warehouse or data lake. But today, we have enterprise data products that exist as building blocks, and we are quickly able to bring them together using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to solve a specific business question or problem.
We are also working on data mesh technologies, which basically bring all these data products together, allowing us to quickly run data science experiments atop it — modelling and asking questions and trying to get the right sort of insights for those questions. Today, we are able do model problems and gain insights in days and weeks, where it may have taken months earlier. Earlier, our researchers use to spend about 70% of the time just trying to get the data organized, get it into a form where they can analyze it, make sure it's clean, etc. That has rapidly reduced because we are building these data foundations and data building blocks.
What are the challenges on the privacy front, given that the pharma sector deals with very sensitive patient data?
We ensure that all employees understand things like privacy, and sensitivity of the data we handle. So, we put them through several weeks of training and simulation before they gain full access to the systems and data. And, of course, we work on global systems that have the greatest level of privacy by design, including privacy impact assessments and data security safeguards.