Big Pharma, Big Data: Why Drugmakers Want Your Health Records

A nurse wears a watch and stethoscope at St Thomas' Hospital in central London
A nurse wears a watch and stethoscope at St Thomas' Hospital in central London January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters)

Drugmakers are racing to scoop up patient health records and strike deals with technology companies as big data analytics start to unlock a trove of information about how medicines perform in the real world

Studying such real-world evidence offers manufacturers a powerful tool to prove the value of their drugs – something Roche aims to leverage, for example, with last month’s $2 billion purchase of Flatiron Health.

Real-world evidence involves collecting data outside traditional randomized clinical trials, the current gold standard for judging medicines, and interest in the field is ballooning.


Nurse Linas looks at patients' remote check-up results from Hospital del Mar in Barcelona
Nurse Ana Linas looks at patients’ remote check-up results from Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, Spain, December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Albert Gea


Half of the world’s 1,800 clinical studies involving real-world or real-life data since 2006 have been started in the last three years, with a record 300 last year, according to a Reuters analysis of the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s website.


Hot areas for such studies include cancer, heart disease and respiratory disorders

Historically, it has been hard to get a handle on how drugs work in routine clinical practice but the rise of electronic medical records, databases of insurance claims, fitness wearables and even social media now offers a wealth of new data.

The ability to capture the experience of real-world patients, who represent a wider sample of society than the relatively narrow selection enrolled into traditional trials, is increasingly useful as medicine becomes more personalized.

However it also opens a new front in the debate about corporate access to personal data at a time when tech giants Apple, Amazon  and Google’s parent Alphabet are seeking to carve out a healthcare niche.


Roche tablets positioned in front of a displayed Roche logo
Roche tablets are seen positioned in front of a displayed Roche logo in this January 22, 2016 file illustration photo. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration


Some campaigners and academics worry such data will be used primarily as a commercial tool by drugmakers and may intrude upon patients’ privacy.



Learning from the experience of millions of patients provides granularity and is especially important in a disease like cancer, where doctors want to know if there is a greater benefit from using a certain drug in patients with highly specific tumor characteristics.

In the case of the Flatiron deal, Roche is acquiring a firm working with 265 U.S. community cancer clinics and six major academic research centers, making it a leading curator of oncology evidence. Roche, which already owns 12.6 percent of Flatiron, will pay $1.9 billion for the rest.

But interest in such real-world data goes far beyond cancer.

All the world’s major drug companies now have departments focused on the use of real-world data across multiple diseases and several have completed scientific studies using the information to delve into key areas addressed by their drugs.



They include diabetes studies by AstraZeneca and Sanofi, joint research by Pfizer  and Bristol-Myers Squibb into stroke prevention, and a Takeda Pharmaceutical project in bowel disease.

“It’s getting more expensive to do traditional clinical trial research, so industry is looking at ways it can achieve similar goals using routinely collected data,” said Paul Taylor, a health informatics expert at University College London.

“The thing that has made all this possible is the increasing digitization of health records.”


Significantly, the world’s regulators are taking notice

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb – the gatekeeper to the world’s biggest pharmaceutical market – believes more widespread use of real-world evidence (RWE) could cut drug development costs and help doctors make better medical choices.

Under the 21st Century Cures Act, the FDA has been directed to evaluate the expanded use of RWE. “As the breadth and reliability of RWE increases, so do opportunities for FDA to also make use of this information,” Gottlieb said in a speech last September.

The European Medicines Agency, too, is studying ways to use RWE in its decision making.


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