How big tech and big pharma partnerships are providing deeper insights and improving patient outcomes
The recent announcement of Google’s partnership with Sanofi to create a new healthcare innovation lab is indicative of how collaborations between pioneering tech companies and pharma are transforming the healthcare landscape. All of the big tech companies, from Amazon and Google through to Apple and Microsoft, have been clear about their plans to enter the global healthcare market – and their ambitions are huge.
The attraction is clear, the global pharmaceutical market will exceed $1.5 trillion by 2023, growing at a 3%−6% compound annual growth rate over the next five years. The stated aims of these collaborations: to provide people with more control over their health, accelerate the discovery of new medicines, reduce healthcare costs and develop more personalised approaches to treatment will tackle all the major challenges of healthcare – and some of these ambitions are already being realised.
However, for the many benefits these partnerships promise to deliver, the industry must proceed with caution. The speed of technological innovation means that regulation and monitoring can struggle to keep pace – risking patients’ data, genetic privacy and even the health of patients themselves.
A changing healthcare landscape
Partnerships between the big tech companies and pharma are on the rise because both are seeking new areas of growth but neither currently has the full end-to-end capability to compete effectively alone. Furthermore, they recognise the opportunity in combining their strengths and knowledge. The Google and Sanofi healthcare innovation lab, for example, will bring together Google’s technology and analytics expertise with Sanofi’s healthcare data to ‘radically’ transform how future medicines and health services are developed and delivered. Their wide-ranging objectives are to better understand patients and diseases, increase Sanofi’s operational efficiency and improve the experience of patients and customers.
Understanding disease and accelerating the R&D process is a consistent aim of these partnerships and artificial intelligence (AI) has a leading role to play. The collaboration between AstraZeneca and UK-based Benevolent AI3 is one of a number of partnerships announced this year that commit to using AI and machine learning to discover new drugs and treatments. The two companies are combining their expertise to try to understand the underlying mechanics of chronic kidney disease and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) to help them identify new potential drug targets.
Similarly, Microsoft has embarked on a partnership with the leading gene and cell therapy group Oxford Biomedica to improve the next generation of cell and gene delivery technology using the cloud and machine learning. Oxford Biomedica will contribute large data sets for analysis via the Microsoft Azure intelligent cloud platform to develop in-silico models and novel algorithms to help provide long-term and curative treatments for a wide range of diseases.
Also, Microsoft has also just extended its partnership with the Seattle-based Adaptive Biotechnologies to ultimately create a universal blood test that reads a person’s immune system to detect a variety of diseases, while Google-backed Calico is working with AbbVie to tackle ageing and improve the human lifespan, by looking for new treatments for age-related diseases such as neurodegeneration and cancer.
While the objectives of these partnerships – tackling disease and improving patient outcomes – are laudable, the use and analysis of vast databases of patient data raises serious questions about privacy and consent. For example, the partnership between GSK and the human genomics company 23andMe, which offers a consumer-focused DNA testing service, has been controversial. In return for a $300-million investment, 23andMe is providing GSK with exclusive access to its database to help it accelerate the development of medical breakthroughs. The ethical debate is that while 80% of 23andMe’s customers agreed to having their data used for ‘research’, they are unlikely to have believed this would be done for commercial gain by large pharmas. With 23andMe directly profiting by selling on its customers’ genetic details, the argument is that the consent or indeed re-consent for this kind of exchange should be completely transparent and clear.
Global attitudes towards the protection and ownership of personal data are certainly toughening as people are waking up to its value and worth. This is reflected in increased regulation, for example the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which strengthens rules governing individuals’ rights to data and consent. GDPR imposes tough penalties for non-compliance, but the number and frequency of data breaches indicates that the right systems or processes to protect individuals’ personal information are not keeping pace with technological change.
Diagnosing and detecting disease
Other big tech–big pharma partnerships are seeking to deliver immediate benefits to patients by diagnosing and detecting diseases before medical intervention. Apple has partnered with Johnson & Johnson to develop its new Apple Watch with built in electrocardiogram (ECG). The collaboration aims to see if the Apple Watch’s heart rate monitoring function can detect the irregular heartbeat condition, atrial fibrillation.
A third of cases of atrial fibrillation go undiagnosed, putting sufferers at risk of life-threatening complications such as stroke. If this partnership is successful, the early detection of this chronic disease will help save lives. However, in the words of Milton Packer: ‘So how accurate or useful is the Apple Watch in detecting short infrequent bursts of asymptomatic atrial fibrillation in patients with no known heart disease in whom the prevalence of the arrhythmia is extremely low? We simply do not know.’
Enhancing clinical trials
Clinical trials are another key area where tech and pharma partnerships are seeking to enhance and improve the status quo. Recruitment for clinical trials is one of the most pressing challenges and technology is delivering innovative ways to directly target the most suitable patients.
The Google-owned tech company Verily has recently announced strategic partnerships with Novartis, Sanofi, Otsuka and Pfizer to help reach potential clinical trial patients in different ways and to make it easier for them to enrol in studies. Verily’s technology can already enable someone searching for a health condition online to be targeted by a pop-up alert inviting them to participate in a clinical trial that could be relevant to them.
Another approach designed to help ease recruitment in medical trials is Apple’s ResearchKit, a medical platform designed to turn the iPhone into a diagnostic tool for clinical trials and studies. GSK has already signed up to use it to conduct a medical study on rheumatoid arthritis.
Amazon is seeking to create a full service solution to healthcare, from diagnostics and treatment through to recovery and wellness. Its purchase of the online pharmacy business PillPack in 2018 sees the tech giant now responsible for delivering medication straight to people’s doors, while its Alexa is partnering with the NHS to provide health information directly to patients. While undeniably convenient and attractive to consumers, there are problems involved with this one-size-fits-all approach. Cutting out healthcare professionals runs the risk of important symptoms not being picked up and patients being misdiagnosed. Furthermore, Alexa’s recent high-profile data breaches have led many in the industry to call the NHS’s link-up with the popular voice assistant a ‘data protection disaster waiting to happen’.
Certainly these big tech and big pharma partnerships have the potential to transform drug development and improve patient outcomes – and they are here to stay. But the race to be the first to make groundbreaking discoveries must not come at the cost of sacrificing data privacy. Both technology and pharma companies must understand that patient trust is hard won, but easily lost.
Andrew Rut is chief executive of MyMeds&Me