Apple and Google stake a claim on big pharma’s turf

March 22, 2015 12:18 pm

Apple and Google stake a claim on big pharma’s turf

Andrew Ward, Pharmaceuticals Correspondent

Drugmakers unsettled as large tech groups turn to healthcare

Within 24 hours of Apple launching its platform for health research this month, tens of thousands of iPhone users had signed up to take part in five inaugural studies involving some of the US’s most respected medical institutions.

A Harvard-affiliated cancer centre will measure the long-term effects of chemotherapy by asking breast cancer survivors to input information about their energy levels and mood. Another, led by Stanford University, will use the iPhone’s sensors to investigate links between physical activity and heart disease.

Apple’s ResearchKit is the latest example of the technology industry’s deepening interest in healthcare as mobile devices open new ways of measuring wellbeing.

Apps ranging from step-counters and heart-rate meters to alcohol breathalyser kits and ovulation monitors already provide individuals with a wealth of personal health information. ResearchKit demonstrates the potential for this data to be aggregated in ways that could shed light on trends across wider population groups.

Jeff Williams, Apple’s head of operations, says the software will turn the iPhone into a “powerful diagnostic tool” and overcome some of the problems with clinical research, such as the difficulty of recruiting patients. “There are hundreds of millions of iPhone users out there who would gladly contribute if only it was easy to do so,” he says.

Apple is not alone. Google has invested in two companies that aim to do their own research on the back of the proliferation of medical data: 23andMe, a DNA-testing company that has a bank of genetic information from the 850,000 customers who have used its $99 DNA testing kit; and Calico, which is focused on age-related diseases.

Digital health venture funding

Roche and Pfizer, two of the world’s biggest drugmakers, have deals with 23andMe to tap its data for use in research. But this month the California company went a step further in making its own push into drug development by hiring Richard Scheller, former head of research and development at Genentech, the biotech arm of Roche.

For traditional healthcare companies, the arrival of Google and Apple on their territory is unsettling. Only a fraction of the value of a drug is in the physical pill or injection itself. Could new entrants from Silicon Valley and beyond muscle in on the research and development process?

David Bates, chief innovation officer at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, says such a day is a long way off. Most activity so far has been limited to fitness apps providing motivational information rather than truly medical-grade data.

“The greatest benefit [of digital health] is for people with chronic conditions, but many of these apps are not designed to be used by those people,” he says. The target market is affluent and fitness-obsessed iPhone user, rather than people whose lifestyles most need changing.

To provide real research value health apps need to be connected to electronic patient records, Dr Bates adds. There remain significant systemic barriers to this happening in most countries, not to mention public concerns over data privacy.

Nima Ahmadi, co-founder of Bioniq Health, a digital health start-up based in Palo Alto, California, says: “The noise-to-signal ratio in this space is one of the highest I have seen. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of things without a lot of traction.”

Google delves deeper into health data quest

Harnessing personal data to improve the health of its users has long ranked among Google’s loftier ambitions.

More clinical-grade apps are gradually emerging, such as glucose monitors to help manage diabetes. But these face scrutiny from regulators, who plan to subject them to the same rigorous approval process as medical devices such as heart stents and pacemakers.

Joe Jimenez, chief executive of Novartis, the Swiss drugs group, says the health and technology industries must share expertise. His company is working with Google on a “smart” contact lens that will measure blood sugar levels in tear fluid and transmit the data to a mobile device. “Novartis is one of the largest contact lens manufacturers, but we don’t know anything about microprocessors and about sensors,” he says.

By working together, he says, the two industries can develop breakthrough technologies that help meet the growing health needs of an ageing global population. What is becoming clear, however, is that Google, Apple and others want a share of the resulting value.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015.


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