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Life sciences cloud: Accenture, Merck, AWS team on platform

Accenture, Merck and Amazon Web Services are collaborating on a life sciences informatics platform that addresses key process bottlenecks in pharmaceutical research and development.

Accenture and pharmaceutical giant Merck aim to modernize the IT infrastructure underlying the drug discovery process, building a cloud-based informatics platform on Amazon Web Services that seeks to replace decades-old technology from the client-server era.

The life sciences cloud platform will be designed to handle the volume and diversity of data involved in pharmaceutical research and development, while also providing collaboration capabilities for an industry increasingly open to cooperation. The initiative includes an ecosystem component, which uses APIs and microservices to encourage third-parties such as scientific application providers to plug their technologies into the informatics platform.

Brad Michel, managing director at Accenture's global life sciences practice, called the platform a "fundamental rearchitecting" of life sciences R&D.

"We have found through the work we have done over the last several years that the industry has a number of challenges in common that are impacting the speed and efficiency of the drug discovery process," Michel said.

The amount of data and the widely differing types of data create one key process bottleneck in drug discovery, noted Joe Donahue, a managing director at Accenture's global accelerated research & development services group and practice lead for life sciences research.

"This data is constantly increasing both in terms of the volume and in terms of how heterogeneous it is," he said.

Joe Donahue, managingdirector with Accenture's global Accelerated Research & Development Services groupJoe Donahue

For example, the data required in drug discovery comes from a multitude of sources and applications. And data types include text, chemical structures, images and genomic information. The challenge, Donahue said, is aggregating, enriching and linking the data so it becomes meaningful to researchers.

A lack of collaboration tools is another bottleneck. Traditionally, pharmaceutical research took place in silos, but the modern process might involve contract research organizations, academic medical centers, as well as biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, Donahue noted. He said the need to share information puts pressure on a pharmaceutical company's informatics and IT personnel who find it "cost and time prohibitive" to create collaboration systems, he added.

Life sciences cloud uses AWS

Chris Wegmann, managing director at Accenture's Amazon Web Services Business GroupChris Wegmann

In addressing those R&D difficulties, the life sciences cloud will rely heavily on AWS.

"What we have done is work to optimize and take advantage of as much of the AWS platform as possible," said Chris Wegmann, managing director at Accenture's Amazon Web Services business group.

The informatics platform is not just hosted on AWS, but is built using AWS tools and services, Wegmann noted.

Brad Michel, managing director at Accenture's Global Life Sciences practiceBrad Michel

He cited Amazon's Lex and Polly as examples. Lex provides automatic speech recognition and natural language understanding for building applications with conversational interfaces, while Polly is a text-to-speech service. Other AWS tools in the mix include the Amazon QuickSight business intelligence service and Amazon Neptune managed graph database.

AWS identifies life sciences as one of Neptune's use cases. Wegmann said Accenture has access to Neptune's core developers, noting they are helping Accenture adapt the database for the life sciences cloud platform.

Informatics platform ecosystem

The industry is much more willing to collaborate together to solve common problems than it ever has before.
Brad Michelmanaging director, Accenture's global life sciences practice

As for the informatics platform ecosystem, Donahue said the idea is to provide a faster way for third-party vendors to bring their technologies to the market. To participate in a life sciences platform, an AI startup, for example, would typically need to have expertise in data ingestion and linking tools, as well as the ability to navigate the security system that protects data access. APIs, however, let startups concentrate on their products, rather than infrastructure components. 

"They can focus on linking to the APIs and providing their new technologies ... and new sources of data," Donahue said.

"We are creating the platform in a very open way," Michel added. "Third-party technology providers, content and service providers can plug in to the platform with their solutions."

Collaboration

Merck is working with Accenture to launch the life sciences cloud and will be the first pharmaceutical firm to use the platform. But the platform is available to other pharmaceutical, biotech and scientific research organizations. Traditionally secretive pharmaceutical companies are more likely now to use the same informatics platform for a couple of reasons. First, companies recognize their common challenges and believe it is better to solve them collectively than individually.

"The industry is much more willing to collaborate together to solve common problems than it ever has before," Michel said.

Second, the industry's distinction between competitive and precompetitive activities has created a space for collaboration. The science of drug discovery and R&D data will remain proprietary, Michel said. But infrastructure concerns, such as the need to handle vast amounts of data, are problems that life sciences companies can solve together without impacting competitive advantage, he said.

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