Two members of Discovery Park’s Health Hub, Wren Healthcare and A4P Bio Logistics, have responded to the new challenges presented by COVID-19 by adapting and collaborating to provide new vital healthcare services. With many patients unable to attend usual clinical trial sites, Wren Healthcare is now providing home visits from nurses whilst A4P Bio Logistics manages shipments of the trial medicine to patients and sample collection. This collaboration is helping to keep patients in clinical trials, allowing the studies to continue despite the challenging circumstances.
Whilst providing such a vital service during the COVID-19 pandemic, and facilitating pharmaceutical, life science and healthcare companies year-round, logistics expertise doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves as a vital part of drug discovery and research. We spoke to Tim Davies, Business Development Manager at A4P Bio, to find out more about their collaborative support in tackling the challenges brought by COVID19.
Tim, your company offers very specialist services, can you explain exactly what A4P do?
We’re a bioanalytical project management company with specialised logistics. We’re quite niche, sitting between the clinical research organisations and the big pharmas.
We offer two main services:
- We help pharma and life science companies set up project management for drug testing and we also help small biopharmaceutical companies that haven’t got the expertise inhouse look at data and the associated project management required for the study and bioanalysis of data.
- We therefore have expertise in specialised logistics, also offered as a separate service. We can move biological samples all around the world, from clinics to central labs. That could be anything from the drug itself (or Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients, API) through to testing kits, blood or tissue samples or any bodily fluid or tissue.
So what’s your background? How have you acquired such a specialism?
The A4P directors were in a group called the Clinical Assay Group which was doing very similar work for Pfizer in the 1990s. They managed the outsourcing of clinical trials, specialised logistics and data analysis. So, when Pfizer down-scaled its operations in Sandwich, the four directors set up their own company as a service provider for other companies in need of their specialist skills. Since then, we’ve grown to 15 employees, the majority of which has been over the last two years.
When the government enforced lockdown, what happened next? How did you have to respond?
We work remotely with our scientists most of the time anyway, because they receive data through secure servers online. Most of them are working from home and because they’re dotted all over the UK and Europe, we utilise remote working. A few of us come into the office if we need to because we’re local, but other than that, there’s been no real change to the way we work. We all work through a VPN (Virtual Private Network), all of our data is secure, so it didn’t make too much of a difference. We were just no longer able to stand next to somebody in the office for a chat.
You’ve been collaborating with Wren Healthcare to help continuation of clinical trials by treating patients on these trials in their own homes. How did that come about?
With our specialised logistics, we’re able to move the API from any pharmacy anywhere in the world – to – anywhere in the world, and get the samples that are being taken (blood, DNA, etc ) to the central labs for testing etc . We’ve been working with Wren Healthcare for a while on some other bits and pieces but this work came out of the blue due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Wren are working on an oncology study. Scientists didn’t want patients going back into hospital in order to keep them away from COVID-19, because they were at high risk and needed to self-isolate. We devised a plan to collaborate, combining Wren’s home nursing expertise and our logistics expertise, and it’s worked pretty seamlessly. A4P have been providing such logistics for other healthcare companies involved in home clinical trials for 2–3 years now, so it was nothing new to us. We helped Wren Healthcare understand how it could be done really quite efficiently, and more cheaply, than using a Phase I hospital.
We’ve been doing a similar thing with other companies at Discovery Park. A couple of organisations are looking at prophylactics for COVID-19 and we’re helping them set up Phase I clinical trials in London.
Have you needed any government or local authority support to help you continue to provide these vital services?
We haven’t needed any support, even though we’re busier than ever. Another thing we do is move the swabs around for the Coronavirus testing stations. We’re moving swabs from Europe into the UK and within the UK to central laboratories, thousands and thousands every day. We’re also now moving swabs around in America.
How is your move into America going?
We’ve been in America for some time, working on the bioanalytical side of things, but the COVID-19 work is new to us, and the larger logistics systems that we need to get swab samples all around America. All work is managed from the UK.
So you’ve experienced a rapid increase in demand for your services during the crisis?
Yes, and we’re small enough to react quickly. From initial contact with Wren Healthcare, we were able to help them set up and get going in just three weeks, so nobody had to stop their oncology treatments at all.
We never say never to anything or any jobs that come through the door. We react quickly to absolutely any enquiry we receive.
Can you tell us a bit more about what you did in those 3 weeks to help Wren?
When setting up a project like this, first you need to understand how the API, or the drug, from the hospital pharmacy has to be treated. Does it have to be kept cold, frozen?; how quickly does it has to be there? Then a shipping plan is created – how to pick it up, who to contact; when the nurse will be with the patient so the drug arrives at the patient’s door at the same time, or, if it can it be delivered the day before? Once the nurse has done the treatments, taken readings and samples, how quickly does it need to get back to the central lab? What temperature does it need to be kept at? There are myriad of conditions that are possible. Are they needed same day? A whole system needs to be set up to ensure samples collected are in optimum condition for the research.
This is important work because it encourages patients to stay on a trial. Some patients, especially if they have rare diseases, may be in a cohort of only 15 or 20. They could be anywhere in the country all providing data for one clinical site. Ordinarily, they would have to drive, or take public transport to the clinical centre, whereas if they can stay at home, it facilitates patient retention for the study.
How widely distributed do the patients tend to be?
We’ve helped to manage studies in Spain, central Europe, and throughout the UK. Our logistics team manage all the time-points on a journey so we know where everything is at all stages of a project.
Have you had to adapt in any way at all in order to meet the increasing demands on your business?
We’ve utilised Zoom and Microsoft Teams for team meetings. Rather than schedule in face-to-face meetings, we’ve been using Zoom to get in front of people very quickly to discuss problems and issues immediately. This is definitely a new way forward for us. As a business development manager, face to face meetings are important, rather than using the telephone, and this is the next best thing. The number of meetings, webinars and conferences that I’ve done online means I don’t have to travel across Europe or to America.
How are you looking after your workforce during this pandemic?
We have Zoom calls at 10.30 every day!
You’ve experienced rapid growth and challenging circumstances. What advice would you give a new company entering your sector now?
Never say no – always say yes. There’s always a way. For any new company setting up at Discovery Park I would advise there’s always a way of working around something. So never turn anything down.
Has being based in a dedicated life science environment been good for your business?
So many companies come to us for advice or logistics. We work with 90 per cent of the companies that need specialised systems for getting things from A to B. We help a lot of the small pharmas at Discovery Park with their clinical trials and data project management. It’s invaluable being on site and enables new companies to branch out into the wider world.
Working in Sandwich has many advantages as a place to live, don’t you think?
Where I live we get beautiful sunsets over the sea – I could never leave that now! The sunrises from the east over Broadstairs beach are amazing!
To find out more about A4P Bio, visit https://www.a4pbio.com