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Exclusive: This Doctor Wants to Use Salesforce Blockchain to Cut Cancer Drug Development Costs in Half

November 21, 2019, 10:27 PM UTC

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Good afternoon, readers.

Dr. Laura Esserman is on a mission to bring the blockchain to health care.

I can already hear the audible groans and see the general eye-rolling—I get it. There have been plenty of bold claims when it comes to blockchain, the decentralized ledger technology, in pretty much every sector from food to medicine. So far, the sizzle to steak ratio has been out of whack, and skepticism is integral to good science.

But Esserman, a renowned surgeon and director of the UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center, believes blockchain can slash the cost of cancer drug development while spurring new innovations in breast cancer treatment.

That’s why her team at UCSF, partnered with a number of key stakeholders, is testing out a proof-of-concept using Salesforce Blockchain to share clinical trial lab results with researchers, Esserman tells Fortune. The initiative will be discussed at the Salesforce Dreamforce conference on Thursday.

“We don’t have the technology to automate this sort of data collection,” Esserman says in a phone interview.

The details are a bit sparse (it is, after all, a proof-of-concept). The UCSF project is in conjunction with Quantum Leap Healthcare, a non-profit that’s fueling a breast cancer clinical trial program dubbed “iSPY2.”

The ultimate goal here is to bring the cost of cancer drug development down to five years and $500 million—literally half of the 10 years and nearly one billion dollars currently required to produce such treatments.

Just how would that work out in practicality? Esserman explains that the current clinical trial and drug development process is riddled with uncertainty, especially when it comes to data collection and integrity.

For instance: The baseline for what qualifies as an acceptable liver function level for a potential clinical trial participant can vary wildly based on who did the test, where it came from, and what criteria were used to assess the numbers. Blockchain could simultaneously universalize and democratize that process, according to Esserman.

That’s because this system could automate a process that is still, in this digital age, reliant on flesh-and-blood humans to assess, record, and analyze something as basic as lab reading.

“I can see, with blockchain, what the normalized numbers are for someone enrolling in an iSPY trial,” she says, adding that data re-entry and redundant practices can drive up the cost of a clinical trial 30% to 60%.

Blockchain could potentially provide both accountability and efficiency on this front since everything is linked together in a documented chain-of-custody—a practice that is surprisingly foreign to American health care.

It will be a while before we know whether such a proof-of-concept shakes out in the real world. But, clearly, some medical readers are willing to give it a shot.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Welldoc, Astellas partner on international diabetes initiative. Japanese drug maker Astellas and digital health firm Astellas announced this week that they'll partner on a digital diabetes maintenance program called BlueStar in a number of Asian markets (and to broaden the program's U.S. presence). BlueStar is among a slate of diabetes maintenance programs that combines blood glucose monitoring with personalized suggestions (and motivation) for patients with type 1 or type 2 diabetes; it's been on the U.S. market since 2010.


Sanofi reportedly considering spinoff of its $30 billion consumer health arm. Bloomberg reports that French drug giant Sanofi is mulling over what to do with its consumer health arm, which could be worth some $30 billion. If a spinoff were to occur, it would follow in the footsteps of other biopharma titans that have spun off consumer health divisions in order to home in on personalized medicines and gene therapies (including Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline). Sanofi has been attempting to reinvent itself as its flagship diabetes drug franchise faces increased competition. (Bloomberg)


The weekly vaping death update: 2,290 cases, 47 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has released its latest vaping lung injury update, and the numbers just keep growing: We are now up nearly 2,300 confirmed cases and 47 deaths, largely associated with illicit THC vaping products. Meanwhile, on another smoking front, public health advocates (including former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf) are criticizing an about-face by the Trump administration on slashing the amount of nicotine in cigarettes—a plan the administration itself proposed in 2017. (Reuters)


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