Blockchain technology has typically been associated with cryptocurrencies, but the new technology has started to permeate the pharmaceutical industry as well. While they are embracing blockchain for the benefits it can provide in the supply chain and in support of serialization, they are not yet making the most of its potential in other areas— including supporting drug discovery and development. Blockchain could have applications in managing clinical trials, sharing medical data with other researchers, or as an electronic medical record for patients, researchers and doctors alike.
Given the growing amount of data in the life science industry – from wearable devices to genomic data – life science organizations will need to look for new ways to securely store and retrieve this ever-increasing supply of information. Blockchain could provide a perfect mechanism for stacking information about data on secure ‘blocks’ and delivering security controls to limit access to the information as necessary. However, before blockchain can be successfully implemented more widely, it is vital that individuals and organizations collaborate to support different use cases for the pharma and healthcare industries, avoid duplication of adoption efforts and standardise processes.
The house that blockchain built
A recent survey from The Pistoia Alliance asked life science professionals where they believed the greatest opportunities for using blockchain might lie; the most popular use case identified (by thirty percent) was in the medical supply chain. It is therefore no surprise that the bulk of blockchain implementation has so far centred around this area. Fifteen percent of respondents believe blockchain will have the greatest value for scientific data sharing – this data could be anything from pre-competitive research data, to clinical trial data. Interestingly, the FDA seems to agree with these respondents, as it is already trialling a blockchain system for the secure exchange of health data at a large scale.
Much of the data stored by pharmaceutical companies is pre-competitive and, once used within the project that spawned it, adds no direct value to the organization holding it. Although the data may have previously been disregarded as irrelevant for one specific research project, it could be extremely beneficial for another research project elsewhere. The ability to ‘share’ these data with other life science organizations, while still retaining the rights to the data, could benefit all organizations involved in drug discovery and development. Blockchain technology has the potential to be a significant enabler of such ‘rights-retaining’ data sharing.
In a regulation-heavy industry like life sciences, blockchain could provide an ideal solution for enabling wider, more secure and possibly even more public sharing of data – for example allowing regulatory agencies to validate more thoroughly the authenticity of the data, and ensuring it complies with legislation. Additionally, the security built into a blockchain provides a more controlled, and potentially private, means of storing and sharing data. Given it may be extremely sensitive and personal data – medical records and clinical trials information – it needs to be well-protected to ensure the privacy and safety of patients.
However, before life sciences organizations reach the stage where they are able to use blockchain technology to help share any data, the various stakeholders in the industry, the regulators, researchers, academic groups and technology firms, must work together to build a blockchain which is fit for purpose and overcome barriers to its implementation.
The foundations for a pharmaceutical blockchain
One such barrier is the perceived lack of value blockchain provides beyond a traditional database, as cited by eighteen percent of our survey respondents. Additionally, despite the higher levels of validation a blockchain could provide for data, some five percent of respondents are concerned about there being too little security for the system to be successfully used by the life science and healthcare industries.
The most significant barrier, however, is the current dearth of blockchain knowledge and skills; in our survey, fifty-five percent of life science professionals identified a lack of access to skilled blockchain personnel as the greatest barrier to adoption, with a further sixteen per cent saying the difficulty in understanding blockchain is the most significant hurdle for life science organizations. Further evidence for this lack of blockchain understanding is the fact that six percent of life sciences professionals surveyed believe that the greatest barrier to blockchain implementation is the amount of electrical consumption required, when this is actually not true for enterprise-focused blockchain platforms like Hyperledger.
Across the range of science disciplines, the skills gap is frequently cited as a challenge that organizations need to overcome. In an age where new technology is transforming science, the lack of tech skills will likely continue to have an impact on the adoption of new innovations in all areas – including life science. To help overcome this, The Pistoia Alliance has launched a blockchain community to share knowledge and best practice.
Given tech knowledge will be vital to pharma organizations looking to develop and adopt blockchain, collaboration with professionals and companies outside of the sector is vital – particularly with the technology industry – as well as with competitors and other organizations like CROs and regulators. Without this collaboration, we run the risk of multiple blockchain projects being run concurrently, without industry communication, all trying to solve the same problems. This means missing the opportunity to develop and implement industry-wide standards and data. Aside from the cost of multiple companies individually developing multiple, similar blockchain systems, this is likely to hamper the development of the industry – as we are left with data still trapped in siloes, which is not conducive to the “FAIR data principles” (that data be findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable), thereby increasing the barriers to collaborate in the future.
Building new potential into the industry
We are now at the stage where collaborating to develop blockchain cannot be delayed any longer. The Pistoia Alliance’s research found sixty percent of life science organizations are already either experimenting with, or actively using, blockchain technologies. That is up from 2017, when only twenty-two percent of life science organizations were experimenting with or using blockchain. This rapid growth in the investigation of the technology shows the industry needs to act now–we must mitigate the skills gap by ensuring existing staff get adequate training, technical information, and experts’ guidance to leverage blockchain in their jobs. And we need to work together. Blockchain can only support broad industry collaboration if the industry first unites to implement the technology in the most useful and impactful ways.