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BioInform New IBM Unit Pushes Personal Medicine

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Formalizing an initiative that has been at the “exploratory” stage for the last few years, IBM says it is launching a new information-based medicine business unit to address the IT infrastructure needs of personalized healthcare.

Led by Michael Svinte, previously vice president of worldwide marketing and business development for IBM life sciences, the new initiative is a subset of IBM’s life sciences and healthcare business units that will focus on providing IT solutions to help combine genomic data, demographic and environmental information, and other research data with existing clinical and patient records.

The company is making this move because it sees a growth opportunity. In work with market research firm Frost & Sullivan, IBM estimates that the market for IT solutions for personalized medicine will reach $8 billion by 2006.

IBM already had the pieces of its information-based medicine strategy in place last spring, but the company is putting its money where its mouth is with the launch of the business unit as a “corporate-sponsored growth area,” says Svinte. The company is not disclosing the amount of its investment in the new group, but “it’s sizable for the startup, and then as results merit, we will continue to increase and grow the resources,” he says.

Emerging Market

The information-based medicine group is following in the footsteps of its parent business unit at IBM, life sciences, which kicked off under the company’s “emerging business opportunities” program in 2000 with a $100 million investment. Currently the life sciences group employs more than 1,200 people across the company.

“It’s an acknowledgement that the life sciences business within IBM has really emerged,” Svinte says. “It is a significant business for us as a company, and yet we see tremendous opportunities for continued growth.” The company has set its sights on personalized medicine as the next big thing.

Like the life sciences group, the information-based medicine business unit seeks to build a network of partner organizations to help establish a foothold in the emerging area. “Once again, we’re stating very much that we cannot and we will not do this alone,” Svinte says. Early partnerships include IBM’s work with the Mayo Clinic, DeCode Genetics, and the Translational Genomics Research Institute.

Although the days of truly personalized medicine are still a long way off, the company’s partners, as well as pharmaceutical companies and some of the national biobanking initiatives, will look to IBM’s IT know-how and market influence to help drive the nascent field forward, Svinte says.

When IBM was first putting the life sciences group together, Svinte says, “Everybody said, ‘Don’t even think about personalized medicine or information-based medicine; that is so far out in the future, and don’t get distracted by it.’ Well, I’ve got to tell you that we have seen a lot of interest from our clients in working on these kinds of projects.”

Ceding that “there will be real adoption challenges as there has been for IT within the healthcare space,” Svinte says that by supporting the efforts of the early adopters, “innovative ways to address some of those challenges will occur — so this is very much an opportunity for us as an organization to provide some leadership, tackling some of the core challenges that we see, and doing it with our partner ecosystem, and learning as we go.”

IBM is not alone in applying its IT expertise to the molecular medicine space. Hewlett-Packard’s HP Labs is currently working with Partners HealthCare on a project to integrate clinical and genomic data in an effort to extend HP’s life science business into clinical practice. But if IBM’s estimates of the market size are in the ballpark of reality, there should be plenty of room for a little healthy competition in the market.

An expanded version of this article originally appeared in the January 19, 2004, edition of BioInform.

 

Bernadette Toner is editor of BioInform, a weekly newsletter from GenomeWeb at www. bioinform.com. She can be reached at btoner @genomeweb.com.

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