Why is Ireland lagging behind in attracting clinical trials?

10 May 2023

Frank Sullivan, a radiation oncologist and professor of medicine. Image: Whyze Health

Vish Gain speaks to Frank Sullivan and Frances Abeton, co-founders of Whyze Health, about Ireland’s poor clinical trials record despite being a pharma hub.

Over the years, Ireland has established itself as a biopharmaceutical powerhouse. Many of the world’s leading names in biotech and pharma, including Johnson & Johnson, Roche, Pfizer and Novartis, have their European hubs based on these shores.

But one area in which Ireland seems to be a laggard is clinical trials, a crucial element in the advancement of healthcare research.

Compared to similarly-sized countries such as Denmark and Finland, Ireland attracts significantly fewer clinical trials, accounting for only an 18pc share between the three nations, compared to Finland’s 29pc and Denmark’s impressive 53pc.

This is according to a survey conducted last year by the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, which collected and analysed clinical trial data between 2013 and 2021 from a database provided by the US Library of Medicine.

Not long before the world celebrates Clinical Trials Day on 20 May, I spoke to leading radiation oncologist Frank Sullivan to find out why Ireland is falling behind and what needs to be done to ensure Irish research doesn’t lose out on the wealth of information clinical trials can bring.

Lack of awareness and digitisation

According to Sullivan, who is an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Galway, one of the barriers to Ireland’s ability to attract clinical trials is people’s lack of awareness around it.

“Patients in Ireland are more preoccupied with gaining access to routine healthcare, and access has been a major problem. It’s no secret that we haven’t scored well in terms of our access to healthcare in this country over the last number of decades,” he explained.

“And that’s an ongoing problem. So, I think patients, in my experience as a clinician here, are more concerned about that, than perhaps they are aware of the importance of clinical trials.”

But a general lack of awareness is only part of the problem.

Sullivan thinks the other major problem that’s holding Ireland back is the fragmentation between the parallel public and private healthcare systems that function here.

“Patients are often forced to seek healthcare across multiple platforms, both in the public and private sector, and then there’s an onus on us as a system to ensure that we’re providing a seamless flow of healthcare across those two systems,” he went on.

This fragmentation has a bearing on the digitisation of healthcare in Ireland – a crucial element in the creation of an ecosystem conducive to the proliferation of clinical trials.

“Patient records are in multiple different sites. They’re also often analogue and paper based from the legacy systems we’ve been dealing with here in various stages of transfer into a digital platform.”

From the physician’s point of view, participating in research stemming from clinical trials is not easy in Ireland either. Frances Abeton, an entrepreneur and investor interested in healthcare research, thinks that support systems for physicians engaging in trials are more developed in other countries.

“It’s not simplified for a physician to participate in research. For a physician to participate, there are a number of key administration procedures and processes that have to be complied with. But there is no seamless package for a physician to take on that burden,” she explained.

According to her, other countries such as the Netherlands, the US and Germany have large site management offices, or integrated research offerings, where they manage end-to-end administration around trials and leave physicians to “truly be with the patient”.

Connecting physicians with patients

Ireland’s crippling shortage of physicians further complicates the trials issue.

“So, the question is: how do we set up a system in Ireland that makes it much easier for physicians to participate in research through digitisation, taking a lot of the heavy burden off their backs?” said Abeton, who is the former CEO of clinical trials tech company Firecrest.

“We need to allow a direct connection between physician and patient where there’s more of a trusted, empowerment conversation happening about research and what research could do for patients. That type of support model is very advanced in other countries.”

To facilitate this connection, Sullivan and Abeton have started a company called Whyze Health, which is on a mission to digitise patient recruitment for clinical trials.

Based in Dublin, Whyze was founded by the duo in 2021 as a unified health and research platform that uses AI and machine learning to match physicians with suitable patients for trials.

“We’re trying to make clinical trials more seamless for patients, physicians and the research community by using digital technology to streamline the feasibility and recruitment process, Abeton said.

Sullivan said the platform also allows patients to “much more fully participate across the whole process” of the clinical trials by giving them an understanding of the trial, accepting their feedback throughout to measure outcome and keeping them engaged in the study.

“Right now, the research process usually starts and ends with the trial. But there’s a lot of valuable data after the study is over that we’re losing because patients are disconnecting from the system. This is another problem we are trying to address with our platform.”

A part of Enterprise Ireland’s high-potential start-up unit, Whyze partnered with US-based medical research company Elligo Health Research last year to expand the start-up’s reach.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic