Integrating IT into the Life Sciences

Drug company mergers will likely promote increasingly sophisticated data integration, pushing scientists to further embrace their techno-geek selves.

Lee Hood, one of the worlds leading molecular biologists, has a vision. In addition to a cell phone that can take pictures and organize your day, we just might have devices that prick your thumb, analyze dozens of components, and transmit data to databases that can alert doctors to change your prescription. The pricking and dialing functions may not actually be folded into the same device.

Nonetheless, a tangible picture of personalized medicine that could prevent horrible diseases stirred the imagination of attendees, including my own, at the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in San Francisco.

Indeed, after watching biotechnology fragment for years, I finally felt like efforts to get executives and data to talk to each other were moving closer to reality.

Lofty visions like Hoods are least three decades away, says James Golden, Ph.D., the vice president of research at Life Sciences Insights, a new division of business intelligence company IDC. Nonetheless, companies are taking distinct steps to get there.

The science of being able to take ever more and more sensitive and timely measurements is proceeding apace, he noted, but the biggest barriers are going to be common standards and the challenges of integrating huge sets of data. When drug giants Pfizer and Pharmacia merged, he said, they struggled but eventually succeeded in merging humongous databases.

At one of BIOs plenary sessions, PBS talk show host Charlie Rose led a discussion with leaders of four of the largest biotechnology companies. "How many chairs will there be?" he asked, if he led this session again in three years. Dennis M. Fenton, Ph.D, excutive vice president of Amgen Inc., described consolidation as a "natural progression" of the industry. Not a surprising statement, considering that Amgen recently completed a $1.3 billion acquisition of Tularik Inc. and in 2001 signed a deal to buy Immunex Corp. for $16 billion.

It seems logical, then, that huge mergers of companies with enormous databases could drive data integration efforts more quickly. And the common wisdom is that such integration could drive down development times. During a speech at BIO, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson frequently referred to the FDAs Critical Path project, but one executive I spoke with downplayed its impact, saying that companies would continue to collect data for their own biomarkers, and that convergence would come much later.

/zimages/1/28571.gifTo read my story on that project, click here.

But on the IT side, convergence is already coming, albeit much more slowly than most would like. Users and buyers of technologies within the plethora of specialties of health care and biotechnology are very different. While physicians tend to be leery of new technology, scientists tend to embrace it, and home-grown IT solutions abound in their labs. Nonetheless, both sides need integration. And early-stage researchers are becoming more eager to use clinical data to inform ongoing work. Carol Kovac, general manager of Life Sciences Solutions at IBM, remarked that it just made sense to merge health and biotechnology vertical sectors at her company. And the much smaller group, Life Sciences Insight, made the same decision.

While scientists and health care providers approach different problems in different ways, both are dealing with droves of data that can detect disease and pinpoint exactly how to fix it.