Tech Giants Become Big Movers in Medical Research

Tech Giants Become Big Movers in Medical Research

Basic research is fundamental to the introduction of medicine, medical technologies and other marketable healthcare products. Its bewildering scope or the experimental freedom necessary for market-significant discoveries requires tremendous resources with relative inattention to profitability or return. If pharmaceuticals, medical devices and diagnostics are what emerge from the spigot of translational research workflows, basic research is the well - continually being dug deeper to access wider tables of knowledge. The profundity of basic research has typically been met by only the largest players; government and organizations in the public sphere traditionally sponsor basic research due to their unique ability to marshal broad resources whether human or fiscal.

As healthcare approaches a revolution in terms of the resolution of disease (and its personalization), related basic research appears to be undergoing its own transformation.

As healthcare approaches a revolution in terms of the resolution of disease (and its personalization), related basic research appears to be undergoing its own transformation. Basic research in the United States has seen diminished sponsorship from government due to budget cuts. At the same time, segments of the private sector have shown greater appetite for novel modes of thought and new avenues for product development. Among the new benefactors of U.S. basic research has been the tech industry. While tech companies have been characterized by the luster of ‘disruption’, the role of information technology (IT) in healthcare has been that of a patch, at best seamlessly integrated with and potentiating various devices and medical procedures. In the past year, the tech giants of Alphabet (Google), Apple and Microsoft have proceeded to deepen their involvement in healthcare. These companies still embrace the business opportunities available at the terminal of product pipelines, but now seek to facilitate fundamental medical research capable of attracting even more diverse collaborators and opening broader market horizons.

While tech companies have been characterized by the luster of ‘disruption’, the role of information technology (IT) in healthcare has been that of a patch, at best seamlessly integrated with and potentiating various devices and medical procedures.

Most recently, Alphabet (holding company created in 2015 by Google) introduced its medical research company Verily, formerly Google Life Sciences. The announcement came as Verily graduated to an independent subsidiary under Alphabet. As one of the Google ‘moon shot’ initiatives, Verily is focused on actualizing the transition of healthcare from episodic and reactive to proactive and preventative. Central to the paradigm shift envisioned by Verily is its “baseline” study and the investigation of “healthiness” along biological, genetic, behavioral and environmental factors manageable and analyzable by Alphabet as data.

Central to the paradigm shift envisioned by Verily is its “baseline” study and the investigation of “healthiness” along biological, genetic, behavioral and environmental factors manageable and analyzable by Alphabet as data.

While wellness and preventative care are already ascendant in consumer markets and healthcare models, Verily’s baseline study could contribute to the development of preventive care that more fully integrates systems biology, including in vitro diagnostic (IVD) biomarkers, with patient history and other parameters. Life science research at the Verily lab will likely gravitate around the “omics” or interfacing systems biology fields of genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, lipidomics and glycomics; genomics and proteomics are the most understood fields. A resulting comprehensive or thorough baseline profile of health would be transformational not only to care approaches, but IVD with the introduction of new tests and unique panels or multi-analyte algorithm-based assays (MAAAs). Verily is also researching diagnostic nanoparticles specific to bloodstream biomarkers; bound nanoparticles would be read by a wristband or smart phone.

Timelines for biomarker discovery and validation and wearable diagnostic technology development as part of Verily’s baseline study will extend far past research-oriented business opportunities available to the company. Verily will first possess information marketable to pharmaceutical clients with its construction of comprehensive “healthy” patient profiles and the identification of new biomarkers or collections of biomarkers significant through algorithmic analysis. New biomarkers and diagnostic parameters can be more readily integrated into clinical trial assays (read: research assays) than clinical products requiring regulatory approval. Discoveries from the Verily baseline study could be first used to judge the efficacy of drugs and other therapy during clinical trials prior to use in medical care. Particularly useful clinical trial assays can also find larger clinical markets as companion diagnostics.

Timelines for biomarker discovery and validation and wearable diagnostic technology development as part of Verily’s baseline study will extend far past research-oriented business opportunities available to the company. Verily will first possess information marketable to pharmaceutical clients with its construction of comprehensive “healthy” patient profiles…

Apple has also made clinical trials a focus of its foray into private medical research. Earlier in 2015, the company released ResearchKit, an open source software framework that allows doctors and researchers to broadly recruit clinical trial participants and more frequently gather data from participants. The software powers a uniquely power interface with patients; an app on patient iPhones performs analysis of patients and allows them to communicate with doctors and researchers. Provided free of charge by Apple, ResearchKit practically eliminates the cost of trial recruitment and provides clinical trials with unprecedented access to patients throughout the United States (and potentially, in the future, around the world). Data collection is possible with iPhone’s accelerometer, microphone, camera and pressure sensors as well as various connectible devices.

Provided free of charge by Apple, ResearchKit practically eliminates the cost of trial recruitment and provides clinical trials with unprecedented access to patients throughout the United States…

Supported apps for ResearchKit include the Asthma Health App, Share the Journey (breast cancer), GlucoSucess (diabetes), MyHeart Counts (heart disease and stroke), mPower (Parkinson’s Disease), Autism & Beyond, Mole Mapper (melanoma), and EpiWatch (epilepsy). The apps allow patients to generate their own records of disease while critically providing a wealth of data to researchers. More than 100,000 patients are currently using ResearchKit-related apps.

Apple likely views ResearchKit as a chance to craft the mobile medical research field around its own devices, and before its competitors make similar moves. With the addition of the Watch, Apple is treading closer and closer to medical device territory and has accordingly began related discussions with the FDA, though without any submissions to date. Apple’s engagement with medical and clinical trial device markets bears watching, particularly with speculation the company could develop an FDA-approved device adjacent to its iPhone and Apple Watch.

One way ResearchKit and related HealthKit app data will be shared by Apple is with IBM’s Watson machine learning or artificial intelligence (AI) project. De-identified and secured data will be available for AI analysis and also shared to researchers and other health professional for data mining and analytics development. Microsoft is also working to facilitate greater data sharing between patients and health professionals, making patient data available for bioinformatics development in a secure manner.

Without the fiscal might to individually match the government’s role in medical research, U.S. tech players Alphabet, Apple, IBM and Microsoft are leveraging their unequaled strengths in the collection and analysis of data. Technology will be central to reaching out to unprecedented study populations and powering deep differential analysis of each individual. While Alphabet is conducting medical research in its most tangible form through a lab, tech companies also command infrastructure just as vital to medical research - servers, unparalleled computing power, smart phones, and software.

Kalorama Information provides extensive research into how technology is forming healthcare with titles including The Market for Wearable Devices, Big Data and Healthcare, and EMR 2015: The Market for Electronic Medical Records.