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I’m a (Blockchain) Believer

Blockchain is beginning to make waves in the pharma industry, but many people still do not understand what it is. Also known as distributed ledger technology, blockchain is essentially a big record book; it acts as a decentralized, digital journal where transactions and data are recorded in a consensus across many computers or nodes. Importantly, this is done in such a way that ledger entries or records cannot be altered retroactively or individually to affect the consensus. As data or transactions are stored in “blocks” that are connected to each other, the term “blockchain” was born.

Blockchain technology is most commonly associated with cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin; in fact, blockchain was initially developed to serve as a transaction ledger for cryptocurrencies. In recent years, the sometimes high-profile nature of famous cryptocurrency investors, coupled with instability in cryptocurrency markets, has led to increasing media headlines about the topic, spreading awareness of blockchain technology. The financial services industry has already been experimenting with blockchain, but now other industries, including life sciences and the pharma industry, are beginning to take notice.

83 percent of respondents said they expect blockchain to be adopted in under five years.

At the Pistoia Alliance, we’ve been following blockchain for some time – and, to gain additional insight, we conduct an annual survey to assess attitudes towards the technology for life sciences. Our 2017 survey of senior pharma and life science leaders revealed low levels of knowledge about blockchain technologies, but a clear acknowledgement of the importance of the technology (1); 83 percent of respondents said they expect blockchain to be adopted in under five years. Since the start of 2018, we’ve been working closely with our members to build a program through which the Alliance can support the development of blockchain technology in the life science industry.

According to our 2018 survey, 73 percent of respondents believe the key benefit of using a blockchain is the immutability of data – in other words, the data put into a blockchain cannot be changed (2). In heavily regulated industries like pharma, blockchain has the potential to offer a minimum level of validity to any dataset, as well as the security of knowing it cannot be tampered with – whether through intention or accident. In addition, 39 percent of survey respondents believed the transparency of the system was a key benefit, and 36 percent valued the decentralized approach.

One of the other advantages was the automation potential that blockchain technology provides through smart contracts – self-executing contracts with the agreement terms written into the code directly. These automated mechanisms have been taken up extensively by a number of industries, like banking, as they look to exploit blockchain technology. The potential for smart contracts in healthcare is huge. One possible application could be in the medicines’ supply chain where payment for delivery of a batch of medicines to a wholesaler or to a hospital could be coded into a smart contract; the moment the delivery has been made and ownership has been transferred, payment of the supplier happens automatically. This kind of smart contract could speed up the delivery process and reduce the cost overheads for all parties, as well as being more visible and transparent so helping to reduce the growing issue of falsified or counterfeit medicines.

Two other areas where our respondents thought blockchain technology could have a significant impact were scientific data sharing and electronic medical records. In the drug discovery and development process, many organizations are reluctant to share the huge volumes of data they generate. Historically, companies or researchers view project data as “theirs” – and often assign a level of value to it that may be much more than is warranted, or just never realize the true value of what they have. If this value could be realized without compromising the originating company’s intellectual property – using a secure scientific data market based on blockchain – then others, for whom the data does have value, would benefit. In drug discovery terms, this could make global collaboration much more effective and lead to better, faster medicines development.

In drug discovery terms, this could make global collaboration much more effective and lead to better, faster medicines development.

For patients, blockchain can also offer better access and control over how their medical data is used. In the future, patients could even give individual companies access to “blocks” of their data for specific research purposes (possibly in return for payment). Moreover, it will allow medical organizations to ensure their records are secure, and safeguard the process of transferring or sharing patient medical data with other institutions or specialists.

Our 2018 survey showed that 60 percent of respondents’ organizations were experimenting with blockchain technology; a significant increase from 2017 when only 22 percent of life science organizations were actively looking into, or using, blockchain. This year’s survey also highlighted one big potential hurdle for the adoption of blockchain sooner: access to blockchain-skilled developers. Over half (55 percent) of life science professionals agreed that access to adequately skilled staff would be vital to the success of blockchain projects.

With the right support, I passionately believe the industry can implement successful blockchain technologies for a range of use cases in the near future, but to move forward collaboration will be key to plugging skill gaps. And that means collaborating with other departments in an organization, across disciplines, as well as with external organizations, such as companies in the technology industry. The Pistoia Alliance is working to educate its members, and the industry more widely, through webinars and at our recent bootcamp event. We will also need to work together to ensure the standards for adopting and using new technologies are consistent across the industry, and we must also ensure that the technology is truly fit for purpose. If the industry does not collaborate, we will find ourselves in a scenario where each life sciences company will have to pay companies such as Google or 23andMe repeatedly to access the same data and technologies, delivering stand-alone, siloed results that will not advance drug discovery rapidly or effectively.

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  1. The Pistoia Alliance, “83% of Life Science Leaders Believe Blockchain will be Adopted Within Five Years, Finds Survey from The Pistoia Alliance,” (2017). Available at Accessed October 24, 2018.
  2. The Pistoia Alliance, “More Than Half of Life Science Organisations Already Using or Experimenting with Blockchain, up from Less Than a Quarter in 2017,” (2018). Available at Accessed October 24, 2018.
  3. The Pistoia Alliance, “44% of Life Science Professionals Already Using or Experimenting with AI and Deep Learning, Finds Survey from The Pistoia Alliance,” (2018). Available at Accessed October 24, 2018.
About the Author
Richard Shute

Richard Shute is a Consultant at the Pistoia Alliance, UK.

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