How Can Blockchain Disrupt the Pharma Industry?

16th November 2018 (Last Updated November 28th, 2018 12:31)

CTA Editor Henry Kerali explores what impact blockchain could have on clinical research

How Can Blockchain Disrupt the Pharma Industry?

In the last few years, blockchain and cryptocurrencies have been all the rage, particularly in the financial services industry. When bitcoin – a digital currency – was created in 2008 by the enigmatic Satoshi Nakamoto, much skepticism surrounded the concept (and ultimate worth) of cryptocurrencies.

Yet, a raft of people at the time took the punt by investing in bitcoin, believing it would eventually come good. And in recent times, its value has skyrocketed. However, the volatility of bitcoin is what experts say is holding cryptocurrencies back from becoming more mainstream. On that front, time will tell.

What is Blockchain?

But let’s track back and look at the platform that has made cryptocurrencies flourish – blockchain. What exactly is it? According to Investopedia, blockchain is a digitized, decentralized, public ledger of cryptocurrency transactions.

Each digital transaction is represented as a ‘block’ and is connected to one another in order of completion, resulting in a chain. The data processed in each block is encrypted and verified throughout the chain by a network of computers scattered across the world. Perfect – easy to understand, right? Perhaps not. Let’s use an example to make more sense of it.

Let’s say you make an online purchase, a block would store vital information about said purchase, including the date, time and value of the item. Additionally, the block would contain a digital signature, representing the person who made the purchase. This ensures their identity remains anonymous.

Furthermore, each block contains a unique code, otherwise known as a ‘hash.’ The hash here is key as it distinguishes each block from the rest. Now, before the block is added to the chain, it must be verified. Whereas institutions like banks verify multiple transactions from different customers all in one place, blockchain is different. Instead of a centralized system, blockchain relies upon a network of computers located in various places. Each computer confirms the transaction in question indeed took place. Once the block is added to the chain, it’s visible for all to see, making the process wholly transparent.

How Can Blockchain be used in Pharma?

The use of blockchain in financial services has made people ask how best to leverage the technology in the pharma industry, especially in clinical research. In a recent Forbes article, Mohamad Zahreddine believes it has the potential to tackle the industry’s long-standing issues with privacy practices and regulations.

With study data, for instance, trial sponsors can use blockchain to store vital information, all while protecting the identities of patients. It is hoped for this reason patients and volunteers alike will be more encouraged to participate in clinical trials. By having access to study data at any given time, Zahreddine argues, will engender a greater sense of trust between trial sponsors and patients.

However, many believe blockchain could be most beneficial in the clinical supply chain. With multiple stakeholders involved in the transport of IPs, tracking incidents like temperature excursions is difficult as each player has their own individual ledgers, or tracking devices.

By using decentralized ledgers, the logistical nature of the supply chain can be traced in a fully visible system, accessible to the trial sponsor, manufacturer, shipping company, and patient. In a tightly regulated system, blockchain offers the kind of transparency needed to ensure full compliance throughout the supply chain.

The Implementation of Blockchain – Who’s Leading the Way?

In an arena renowned for being risk-averse, the adoption of blockchain within the pharma industry is for the most part theoretical. However, the blockchain ripple effect is slowly being felt. According to the Huffington Post’s Adi Gaskell, Amgen, Pfizer and Sanofi are combining to use it for identifying potential patients.

For this to work, the three giants need participants, who are available for clinical trials, to submit their data in to the blockchain. From there, the hope is that the companies will find it significantly easier to identify, enroll and eventually retain patients in their studies.

So progress is being made, albeit gradually. For anyone who follows, or works in the industry, history tells us pharma does adopt change at its own pace. For blockchain adoption, see the transition from paper CRFs to eCRFs, or paper health records to electronic health records.

Have no fear – the blockchain revolution is coming.