From Wednesday 31st October to Friday 2nd November, Seoul hosted the KoNECT-MFDS International conference, promoting South Korea’s clinical research capabilities on a global platform. The fourth of its kind, the conference was based around the main theme of embracing change in clinical research. The conference was organised by KoNECT – the Korean National Enterprise for Clinical Trials, a non-profit organisation with the aim of coordinating and leading nation-wide and global collaborations across government, academics, hospitals and industry to accelerate innovation and cultivate the clinical trials ecosystem in Korea.

South Korea has seen rapid growth in its position on the global platform for clinical trials – now ranked 6th in the world only 20 years after the enforcement of global clinical trial management. Korean biopharma accounts for 1.5 percent of the global health industry and 3.5 percent of all clinical trials registered in the USA. Moreover, South Korea boasts 28 specialist Clinical Trial Centres (CTCs) which act as the frontier for advancing clinical trials locally. But with an ageing society and rising cost of medicine, there will be more growth, demand is increasing. With that, the South Korean government has already pledged to invest 2.8 billion won (USD 2.5 million) for the development of smart clinical trials in next year’s budget.

In all, 20 sessions and two plenary lectures were held across the three days, covering Risk Management, Regulatory Science, and Patient Centric approaches to clinical trials. The aim of the event – to create a platform for academia, industry, patients, and other stakeholders to cooperate across research areas. The conference drew over 1000 attendees from across the globe, covering pharma, academia, Clinical Research Organisations, and the regulatory and government sectors. Speakers were invited from across the industry, including multi-national pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, GSK, and J&J, in addition to international clinical research organisations like Syneos Health. South Korean academia boasted strong representation, with leading academics from institutions including Seoul National University Hospital, Ehwa Woman’s University, and the Korea University College of Medicine, accompanied by international colleagues from world-renowned institutions, in particular, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of California.

In one of the opening statements, Ju Yong Kim from the Division of Health Industry Promotion Office, speaking about the country’s bio-health innovation plan, avowed that the government’s future policies will be designed to further the aim of making South Korea a global hub for clinical trials, focussing on a number of factors. First, there will be increased research & development (R&D) support for the pharmaceutical industry, with provisions made to accommodate exports and favourable taxation laws for investments into local facilities. Moreover, preferential treatment will be given to pharmaceutical products developed locally using local clinical trials.

One theme of the conference emphasised the need to improve quality within clinical trials to counteract the global decrease in clinical trials: the number conducted fell by 16.3% in 2017. Min-Gul Kim, an assistant professor at Chongbuk national university suggested that South Korea establish quality certification programmes for its clinical research centres, solidifying South Korea’s long-term position in the clinical trials sector.

Day two’s plenary lecture was delivered by Global Head of Janssen Clinical Innovation, Andreas Koester, dedicated to the subject of transforming clinical research not only for the patient but with the patient. Mr Koester discussed how CRO’s can optimise the clinical research process to streamline clinical trials and bring new innovations to the patient faster, meanwhile accentuating the necessity of continued interaction with patients after a trial’s conclusion

Other speakers included Catherin Yi-San Lee of Pfizer, Taiwan, exploring how Pfizer’s adoption of e-health and novel technological techniques, such as allowing patients to use their own smartphones to capture data, is improving the clinical trial experience for patients, while simultaneously increasing cost-effectiveness.

One of day two’s breakout sessions approached the topic of clinical development strategies for precision medicine. The first speaker Professor Kyoung Mee Kim of Samsung Medical centre evaluated the merits of using next-generation sequencing (NGS) for clinical trials in the field of oncology. Following on, Dr Hyerim Lee of MSD USA analysed how biomarkers could optimise the use of immunotherapies in oncology. The session concluded with a lecture from Dr Hyo Song Kim of the Yonsei Cancer Centre, Korea, whose research into molecular targets of multiple tumour types could revolutionise how cancers are approached, moving from the organ type to the molecular signal present.

The final day of the conference drew to a close with three simultaneous break-out sessions, discussing the topics of clinical trials in rare disease, big data in clinical trials, and adapting the design of clinical trials in oncology drug development. The chair of the conference organising committee and president of KoNECT, Deborah Chee concluded that “the activities over the three days provided a unique opportunity for a Korean and Asian audience to hear from global sponsors and to develop their global networks and partnerships, in line with South Korea’s new approach in meeting regional medical needs”.