Is Blockchain Coming To Clinical Trials (Or Is The Hype Cycle Still Ripe)?

01/11/2018 01:33 am ET

I’ve written a number of times about the potential for blockchain technology in healthcare.  The prospect of using technologies such as blockchain in the NHS was first espoused in a report published in 2016 by the UK’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Mark Walport.

“In the NHS, the technology offers the potential to improve health care by improving and authenticating the delivery of services and by sharing records securely, according to exact rules,” it says.

Whilst Google’s British AI division DeepMind announced the launch of a blockchain like ledger for managing healthcare data last year it's perhaps fair to say that the transformation has not yet materialized.

That might be about to change with the news that pharma giants Pfizer, Amgen and Sanofi are exploring blockchain's application in the drug development process.  The trio are working specifically in the area of candidate recruitment.  They hope that patients who wish to become available for trials can aggregate their data in the blockchain, and thus make it significantly easier for drug companies to find, recruit and retain them in trials.

As a goal, it's one that I wholeheartedly support, and the need to provide better management of data in healthcare is one that I've written about numerous times.  It's far from certain however just how far along in their ambition the trio are.

Indeed, only last summer, Ashish Srivastava and David Mahlum, director of new innovation and technology at Amgen pondered whether blockchain was a pipe dream, with the consensus being that it was at least a decade from widespread adoption in the industry.

Making clinical trials better

That's not to say that clinical trials aren't in dire need of reform however.  A few years ago research by Lilly COI lifted the lid on the dire state of awareness around clinical trials.  They explored how aware cancer patients were of any clinical trials that they could be participating in, and found that just 16% of cancer patients were aware of any relevant trials operating at the time they were considering treatment. This was despite a whopping 95% of patients expressing a desire to consider such an option should they be made aware of it.

A couple of years ago I wrote about an interesting new app called TrialReach that was hoping to rectify matters.  The platform, now known as Antidote, was the brainchild of Pablo Graiver. The aim of the platform is to make it easier for patients to find clinical trials that are relevant to them. They do this via a service called Antidote Match, which uses structured eligibility criteria and AI to gauge the suitability of a patient for a clinical trial. It currently powers clinical trial search for around 200 different patient communities and health portals.

You’ve also got a Dutch project, called myTomorrows, which is hoping to give patients a fast track to drugs that have not yet been fully approved.  The service is a relatively straightforward one, whereby patients can connect with both doctors and drug companies who have undertaken positive initial trials of new treatments.

Also tackling this issue are Cambridge based startup TriNetX.  Whereas Antidote put the power in the hands of patients, TriNetX flip things around and put the power in the hands of the companies running the trials.

They offer companies a platform through which they can search the anonymized electronic health records (EHR) of patients to identify the best candidates for trials.

“Our mission is to disrupt the clinical trial design space by unleashing the power of data that is currently locked away,” the company say.  “Through our network, healthcare providers, pharma and contract research organizations can create strategic partnerships to improve clinical research and patient care, and we are honored to have Novartis as part of our network.  We see this collaboration agreement as a win-win for Novartis, TriNetX, our member institutions, and ultimately patients.”

Whilst none of these projects have the sexiness of blockchain, I suspect each will have a greater impact on the clinical trial process, in the short term at least.

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