Just over a week ago, I went to the medical company AstraZeneca. I met someone at their Mölndal research facility, south of the Gothenburg city center. I’ve been trying to meet with AstraZeneca since arriving in Sweden, and it took me 2 months, but I finally found a way. The company is too big to contact by cold-calling or cold-emailing; my messages via their “Contact Us” page received no response. I ended up talking to a Swattie who has a family friend that works at AstraZeneca Mölndal, and with this friend’s direct email address I was able set up a meeting.
AstraZeneca is probably the biggest medical company in Sweden. When I first arrived here, I kept hearing about it when discussing my project. Later, as I mentioned to people that I wanted to visit AZ, everyone seemed to have heard of it. AZ self-describes as a “research-based biopharmaceutical company,” developing drugs to treat people with asthma, heart failure, diabetes, cancer, and more. Beginning in Sweden over a hundred years ago, the company is now party British-owned, with its headquarters in the UK. The Mölndal campus is the center of its Research & Development in Sweden with 2500 employees.
The man I met there – I’ll call him J, for privacy reasons – explained the AstraZeneca product pipeline to me. The timeline for a product is 10-12 years from conception to sales. This is divided into two main phases: discovery (5-6 years) and development (5-6 years). J works at the beginning of the discovery phase, when scientists work in labs to improve upon or develop new treatments for various diseases. Once a compound is discovered as a treatment for a disease, it must be tested in the development phase. The development phase starts with animal testing and then proceeds to 4 stages: a clinical trial with healthy people, just to make sure that the drug has no negative side-effects; a clinical trial with a small group of real patients; a clinical trial with a large group of patients from different countries; and finally the post-release stage, when AstraZeneca follows up with its products that are on the market. Though I was curious about this stage, it is about 10 years down the pipeline from J’s work. He told me that in the beginning of the discovery phase, the biologists like him aren’t thinking about end products or users; they work on a molecular level. His group is focused on CVMD, cardio-vascular and metabolic diseases, which include heart failure, diabetes, and kidney failure.
J described this as a streamlined and compartmentalized pipeline with the flexibility for researchers to return to various steps along the way and iterate solutions until they were completed, which is of course necessary if something goes wrong. Unsure of how to learn about cultural attitudes towards medtech from a biochemist working in early drug discovery, I asked J what he pictures as the future of his work. He said that the future of medicine will be more personalized health care; he has seen in some AstraZeneca clinical trials that the same drug can work wonders for one group of genetically similar people but do little for another group with the same illness. He thinks that future medicines will be developed accordingly, with a certain genetic profile in mind.
The funny thing about this whole meeting is that I realized, after months of wanting to meet someone at AstraZeneca, that I actually wasn’t interested in their products. I’m interested in cultural factors that lead to the success of medical devices and, in Sweden, how the Nordic ergonomic design tradition might lead to user-focused medical technology that directly improves the user experience and patient outcome. But AstraZeneca is a life sciences company, focused on the biology of creating new drugs and medicines, and not on how the patients get those treatments or if there is patient-doctor compliance. I started to realize that a couple days before meeting with J, when I went onto the AZ website to look at various products I could ask him about. When I saw that they were all pharmaceutical drugs, I knew that I would only be able to ask him about biology, not tech design.
To put it another way, I was partially inspired to do this Watson because I had been working on a “smart” pillbox design in my last engineering internship. I’m more interested in how people take their pills – and how we can encourage people to be better about taking their pills, and thus healthier – than how those pills are actually made. However, it would be amazing if pills could be combined. I saw in my internship that people taking 5 or more pills a day have to deal with pills that can only be taken at night along with ones that can only be taken in the morning, pills that need food and others that don’t, and so on. So if all 5+ pills could be wrapped up into one, that would make everything much easier. I asked J about this, and he said that AstraZeneca is definitely working on combining drugs for such patients, but that it takes a long time. A combination of 2 drugs is a new drug and thus requires a full 10-12 years in the pipeline of discovery and development. Adding a third drug to the mix adds another 10-12 years, and so on.
It might seem like a waste, but it was actually relieving to realize, after trying for months to meet with one of the biggest medical companies in Sweden, that I didn’t need them for my project. Even though AstraZeneca’s medical products do not fit the type of medical technology I’m interested in for my project, I’m still glad I met with them.