Arguably, the Pharma industry is one of the most innovative areas of our economy. In average, between 10-20% of companies’ turnover is ploughed back in R&D with the hope of bringing to life a blockbuster to refuel this cycle. On the other hand, if there is an innovative technology drawing attention to itself, that is the blockchain. Thus, from time to time some news linking Pharma and blockchain are released, such as the collaboration of Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) and IBM to integrate blockchain technology in clinical trials.

What is blockchain technology? Could it be a real boost to the long-discussed digital disruption in Pharma? It may look like it could be the case but one step at a time.

Aren´t blockchain and bitcoin two sides of the same coin?

The blockchain is the technology behind this popular cryptocurrency, but they are not definitely the same. There’re many many posts, books and articles explaining what’s blockchain technology, so it’s not worth me doing it too. I would like just to mention that the purpose of blockchain is to gain efficiency and security while transacting on the internet (information, money, etc.). Nowadays, there’re central sources of information, and every transaction is made against those sources. For instance, your bank keeps the information regarding your funds, and they will say if you have enough money in your bank account when you try to make a purchase.

Supposedly, blockchain technology could dramatically change this way of transacting because every piece of information would be a chain of blocks stored in a variety of “places,” and every attempt of changing this piece of information should be checked and finally approved by any member of that chain.

It seems obvious that should this technology deliver its promise, many industries such as banking would be dramatically disrupted. However, would Pharma be one of these?

Pharma and blockchain

Boehringer Ingelheim and IBM announced their commitment to exploring the adoption of blockchain technology in clinical trials. The pain point to address is the lack of quality of clinical records in clinical trials. Therefore, it could look sensible to adopt a decentralised framework to store those records in order to gain reliability.

Boehringer is not the only one testing this technology. According to a study by the Pistoia Alliance, more than half of life science organisations are experimenting or using blockchain technology. Three of the biggest Pharma companies – Pfizer, Amgen and Sanofi – are working together to extract the potential of this technology. At heart, there is a need for improving the quality of health records while securing privacy.

Most optimistic people state that blockchain could be a game-changer. Every new medicine has to be heavily tested before being marketed, and enrolling patients for clinical trials is a very costly and time-consuming process. However, should personal health records be shared (using blockchain that supposedly secures privacy) among the HCP community, the enrolment process would become less a hurdle, shortening the time-to-market for a new medicine and reducing the cost.

A very long way to go

The renowned hype cycle developed by Gartner depicts five stages to measure the maturity of a defined technology: trigger, inflated expectations, disillusionment, enlightenment and productivity.

Hype cycle by Gartner

After the big expectation created by blockchain, it looks like it’s going through the disillusionment phase, as Enrique Dans reflected on his article: Back to the drawing board? Apparently, on the one hand, the algorithm is expensive and inefficient and, on the other hand, the promised invulnerability should not be taken by granted.

Additionally, to assume that this technology could improve the quality of clinical trials and, for that reason, the cost of developing a new drug would decrease, is a far cry from reality. We have to bear in mind that the internet and the world wide web did transform our lives, the way we communicate and the way we do business. However, the development of new medicines is still a difficult and uncertain process, even more expensive than a few decades ago, due to the strict regulation in terms of security for the population. It’s not unusual that new molecules don´t live up to expectations in Phase III; meaning a lot of money down the drain.

In brief, I don´t think that blockchain will be the technology that will disrupt Pharma and I even cast doubts on its real application.