AR for Pharma: Why Now? COVID + Cell and Gene Therapies

  • Published:
    Oct 20, 2022
  • Category:
    White Paper
  • Topic:
    Augmented Reality

Executive Summary

Chances are, you’re familiar with the term “augmented reality,” but what is it? And more importantly, what role does it play in pharmaceutical manufacturing?

In this white paper, we’ll explore this question in detail. We’ll then outline how COVID and cell and gene therapies are disrupting the way drugs are developed and manufactured.

Let’s get started!

Jump to:

Augmented Reality: An Overview

What is augmented reality?

‍Augmented reality (AR) integrates digital information with a user’s physical environment.

AR works with devices such as tablets, smartphones and head-mounted devices (aka smart glasses), and layers text, videos, photos, holograms, and other media onto a user’s real-world environment. As such, this technology allows users to overlay digital objects onto their field of view, without losing sight of their actual reality.

AR vs MR vs VR: What’s the difference?

If you’re wondering about other names for augmented reality, you aren’t alone. AR is often associated with mixed reality (MR) and virtual reality (VR). Some people may even use these terms interchangeably, but they all carry different meanings:

Unlike AR, which enhances a physical reality with digital assets, virtual reality immerses users into a totally virtual, 3D environment. In this setting, users can interact with a completely virtual world through headsets, glasses, or other devices.

In contrast, mixed reality blends the physical and digital worlds together, thereby enabling users to interact with both real-world and virtual objects. A core component of mixed reality is the interactivity between the user’s actual and digital environments.

What is AR in pharma?

AR technology is especially well-suited to highly regulated, manufacturing-heavy industries like pharma because it provides users with greater control over the manufacturing process. AR allows manufacturers to accelerate production by leveraging guided execution, remote assistance, and real-time collaboration to streamline processes while maintaining a high level of yield and quality.

AR features such as augmented reality overlays, 3D holograms, guided demonstrations, and video conferencing allow workers to receive feedback on the spot, thereby reducing the likelihood of equipment failures, human errors, and process deviations.

How is AR used in pharma?

Augmented reality in pharma has a number of use cases. Pharmaceutical scientists and engineers use augmented reality technology to oversee production virtually and streamline collaboration across sites.

Pharma companies leverage AR to make data acquisition a hands-free, paper-free process. This helps to:

  • Decrease the likelihood of errors
  • Automate manual processes
  • Enhance remote collaboration
  • Surface data for more informed decisions

Why It’s Time for AR in Pharma

Since the dawn of time, viruses have plagued humanity — leaving a path of destruction in their wake. From fallen empires and governments to mass population wipe outs, one thing is certain: COVID wasn’t the first pandemic to bring the world to its knees, and it won’t be the last.

Fortunately, we’re much better off today than citizens of the past. Equipped with a deeper understanding of how viruses and diseases spread, alongside cutting-edge technologies, we have the tools necessary to discover and develop life-saving drugs in a fraction of the time.

“The best time to start was yesterday. The second best time is now.”

— Unknown

Ultimately, none of us can predict the future, but we can plan for it better. And part of the planning process involves putting processes in place that not only save time and money, but expedite time to market.

Now, let’s come full circle. Augmented reality allows companies to accelerate drug production so they can bring new products to market sooner.

Plus, companies can train employees faster, while safeguarding operations. The virtual environment provides an excellent opportunity for life science professionals to learn how to conduct various processes without the associated risks (such as operating expensive equipment or executing on batch production).

“Virtual training is critical to pharmaceutical manufacturing because it saves time and potentially expensive machinery and materials used. It also allows for remote training in case it’s not possible for the trainer to be present next to the trainee. This has become increasingly clear during the COVID-19 lockdown phases.”

— Linas Ozeraitis, Mixed Reality Engineer, Apprentice

In addition, AR technology enables stakeholders to collaborate more effectively across operations, regardless of location. This is a key element because it ensures everyone is working from the same page, all of the time.

Next, let’s dive into the top two reasons why AR in pharma is no longer optional:

Reason #1: COVID

From remote work to school and business closures, COVID fast-tracked digital transformation across almost every sector. Overnight, industries such as education, food and beverage, healthcare, and manufacturing had to make a choice: go digital or cease operations.

This wasn’t an easy transition, especially for pharma. The industry has been notoriously hesitant to replace existing processes that are tried and tested with new technologies.

However, COVID forced pharma’s hand — but in a good way. Unable to travel from site to site, or even work in person depending on the role, pharma companies started implementing cutting-edge tech solutions to maintain (and dare we say, expedite) drug development and production.

COVID has had a lasting impact on the life science community. And it has also accelerated three import trends:

  1. Large-scale production of cell therapy. The lightning fast production of mRNA vaccines at a massive scale of 1-2x the global population was the first large-scale production of a cell therapy. Transitioning teams and facilities to make a new modality happened virtually overnight — a process that would typically take years.
  2. New methods to speed production. While not fully “continuous,” manufacturers produced mRNA vaccines with unprecedented speed; thereby adopting many principles of continuous manufacturing. The COVID vaccine creation proved that great speed to market is achievable and has reset the industry’s expectations of what’s possible.
  3. The Zoom effect. With social distancing restrictions, technology has filled a growing need for collaboration in both our personal and professional lives. This has accelerated the widespread adoption of modern customer apps and blurred the lines between personal and professional technology.

Without AR capabilities, these three changes wouldn’t have been possible.

Advanced digital technology is what enabled life science professionals to discover how to make a cell therapy (aka mRNA vaccine) in a ridiculously accelerated time frame.

Instead of taking a decade or longer, COVID vaccines were ready for commercial roll out (under emergency use authorization) by December 2020 — a mere eight months after COVID was declared a pandemic.

Reason #2: Cell & Gene Therapies

Here’s a fun fact: our DNA is 99.9% identical. So, on the surface, it’s logical to assume that whatever treatment works for one person — say to treat colon cancer — should work for every person. After all, we’re all biologically similar.

However, that minute 0.1% of differences creates huge discrepancies (in the millions) regarding how we respond to therapies. As such, taking a one-size-fits-all approach to pharma isn’t always the best solution… and the industry is increasingly waking up to this reality.

Enter cell and gene therapies.

These custom-fitted solutions can be used in conjunction with one another or individually. Cell therapy transfers cells with the relevant function to the patient, whereas gene therapy transfers genetic material into certain cells within the body. Both of these therapies are designed to replace, inactivate, and/or introduce new cells into the mix to treat or cure disease.

Although these highly targeted treatments show great promise, and are likely to become maintainstream in the future, they are more time- and cost-intensive than mass production.

This means in order to successfully treat specific cells and genes, the data used to develop therapies needs to be accurate, up to date, and available in real time. Which gets pretty tricky with paper-based systems.

“Using paper systems for drug manufacturing is inefficient because it slows down data acquisition and is not error proof. Especially in procedure runs, where the same task will be repeated dozens of times, using paperless systems can significantly cut down on these time costs.”

— Linas Ozeraitis, Mixed Reality Engineer, Apprentice

AR-powered technology allows companies to access and visualize data right in front of their eyes, exactly when they need it. This helps reduce the data burden of CGT, helping to accelerate production in a fraction of the time.

This means that personalized medicine isn’t just a pipe dream — powered by the right technology, it’s a reality.

Closing Thoughts: It’s Time to Make Pharma 4.0 a Reality

COVID helped usher in Pharma 4.0, and now cell and gene therapies are adding fuel to the fire.

Powered by cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and AR, Pharma 4.0 is transforming how life sciences teams work, interact with their environments, share data, and execute on processes. What used to take years now takes months or weeks, meaning therapeutics get to the patients who need them most, sooner.

To learn more about Pharma 4.0 and how it can help your organization accelerate drug production, get in touch with our team of future-focused AR enthusiasts.

Our Featured Thought Leader

Linas’s top passions include reading, bicycling, sci-fi, and observing sci-fi becoming a reality. And as a Mixed Reality Engineer at Apprentice, he’s not only witnessing this transformation — he’s helping to make it happen.

Read on to learn more about Linas’s background and insights on the future of AR.

Linas’s Background

Linas Ozeraitis is a creative full stack developer from Vilnius, Lithuania. With 10+ years of experience in a broad range of software development projects, Linas has extensive experience working with mixed reality in a variety of industries, from automotive to AEC and pharmaceuticals.

Linas started his software engineering career as a game developer. He quickly realized that a lot of game development principles can be applied in mixed reality for training, defect detection, or process automation. In his current role as MR Engineer at Apprentice, he seeks to harness the power of augmented realities for pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Linas looks at software development as a craft, and constantly works on improving his own skills and knowledge. He likes to make pixels on the screen jump to his code.

During his coffee breaks, Linas spends time thinking about new and better interactions and user experience inside the XR world.


The Promise of AR: Linas’s Point of View

“AR tech leads to more efficient work, meaning that companies get drugs, vaccines, and advanced therapies to patients faster. That’s why my top recommendation for organizations looking to achieve successful results and stay ahead of their competitors is to invest time familiarizing on how new emerging technologies like mixed reality and AI can increase the performance of their day-to-day operations.”


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  4. Rosenwald, M. S. (2021, October 3). History’s deadliest pandemics: Plague, smallpox, flu, covid-19. Washington Post.
  5. Tremosa, L. (2022, January 26). Beyond AR vs. VR: What is the Difference between AR vs. MR vs. VR vs. XR? The Interaction Design Foundation.