A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Healthcare: Five key trends in the life sciences sector

With rapid advances in healthcare and technology, these breakthroughs are likely to make a big impact in the near future

Wearable technology, like Fitbit, is already massively popular and has the potential to segue into delivering a more advanced healthcare experience. Photograph: iStock

Wearable technology, like Fitbit, is already massively popular and has the potential to segue into delivering a more advanced healthcare experience. Photograph: iStock


Ireland continues to maintain an important position worldwide as a hub for the life sciences, particularly in the realm of pharmaceutical development and manufacturing. As the industry continues to evolve in line with new technologies and regulatory frameworks, we look at some of the key factors that are likely to make an impact in the field in the near future.

Big tech investment

One trend that may develop will be a surge of investment from some new, but familiar, sources as the technology and healthcare industries develop together. “I think we are going to see the tech giants investing further in healthcare,” says Thomas O’Leary, chief information officer of clinical research company ICON. “As software becomes a point of differentiation, the tech giants are seeking to leverage the technologies and their consumer relationships in ways which haven’t previously been considered. Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google have all hired very senior positions to advance their life science capabilities” he says.

“Life science companies are looking at opportunities to provide services and this will likely lead to the growth of digital therapeutics, where a drug is accompanied with a device or sensor to augment patient care. The combination of a pharmaceutical drug and a digital device has the potential to provide greater consumer and user expertise on what medicines are being consumed in the real-world, which could ultimately improve the effectiveness of medicines.”

A focus on rare diseases

“‘Patient Centricity’ has been a major buzzword within the industry over the last few years,” says Ciara Farrell, senior associate at law firm Arthur Cox. “Patients are using the internet and drawing on the increasing influence of advocacy groups to get more involved in research and their own diagnosis and treatment. In parallel, patients are forming more support groups to discuss their conditions and available treatments, which continue past the trials.”

One response to this has been an increase in personalised medicines, which rely on genetic data and biomarkers. “In 2007, there were only three personalised medicines on the market,” explains Thomas O’Leary, “and in 2017 there were 132 personalised medicines on the market.

“The advantages are that those patients who are suffering with rare diseases are seeing the pharmaceutical industry focusing on those diseases and indications which previously weren’t as well understood – there is much more sophisticated and specific ways in which to diagnosis these conditions and address the needs of these patients.”

Regulation of data

Wearable technology, like Fitbit, is already massively popular and has the potential to segue into delivering a more advanced healthcare experience. Predicting and protecting against potential issues that could arise from this use of technology is likely to become a key focus in the life sciences. “As the popularity of wearable technology, and the range and sophistication of products on offer increases, the e-health industry grows, and the rise of genetic testing and personalised medicine all continue then the range and complexity of legal issues around such products and technologies increases,” says Joanelle O’Cleirigh, partner at Arthur Cox.

“Key amongst these are the issues of privacy, data protection and the ownership of data, along with considerations around the use of such data, including targeted advertising. In line with this, healthcare professionals and other industry players are increasingly cognisant of the need to ensure they have strong data-protection systems in place.”

The use of medical cannabis

As the medical use of cannabis becomes more widespread globally, this is likely to have an impact on the research and products being developed in the industry. “Medical cannabis is a developing area in the life sciences sector in Ireland,” says Colin Kavanagh, partner at Arthur Cox. “We are regularly receiving enquiries from global businesses involved in the cultivation, processing and promotion of medicinal cannabis.

“The infrastructure and expertise is already in place in Ireland to produce safe and effective pharmaceuticals and Ireland has an opportunity to be at the forefront in the EU of developing such medicines.”

The use of medicinal forms of cannabis continues to be very restricted in Ireland, in spite of moves to permit their use in limited circumstances.

A focus on access to medicine

“Access to medicines and reimbursement remains one of the most challenging issues in Ireland for the life sciences industry” says Ciara Farrell. “The process has been widely criticised in Ireland as the State struggles to find the effective timely mechanics and funding to approve new medicines for patients. Reports suggest that Ireland takes longer to complete the process than our peers in western Europe. This is a damaging statistic, firstly for patents and then for the sector. While not without its challenges, better policy is needed to address the deadlocks in this process to ensure Irish patients get access to much-needed medicines.”