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IBM Puts its Muscle Behind Information-Based Medicine, But Will IT Be Enough?


Formalizing an initiative that has been at the “exploratory” stage for the last few years, IBM last week said that 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.

As with other similar initiatives, the company is making this move because it sees a growth opportunity. In work with market research firm Frost & Sullivan, IBM has estimated 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 [BioInform 05-26-03], but the company is literally putting its money where its mouth is with the launch of the business unit as a “corporate-sponsored growth area,” Svinte said. The company is not disclosing the amount of its investment in the new group, but Svinte said “it’s sizable for the start-up, and then as results merit, we will continue to increase and grow the resources that as a company we’re putting over the space.”

Svinte was also unable to disclose any details on how many people the new business unit will employ. “We haven’t made all those decisions yet,” he said. Some people who have worked on exploratory projects under the information-based medicine group as part of the life sciences unit will form the “core” team of the new effort, he said. Additional staff will be pulled in from other areas of IBM, as well as outside hires “who have deep domain and industry expertise.”

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 and currently employs more than 1,200 people across the company. Now, Svinte said, life sciences is on the way to “graduating” beyond that emerging phase, and the company has set its sights on personalized medicine as the next big thing. “It’s an acknowledgement that the life sciences business within IBM has really emerged,” Svinte said. “It is a significant business for us as a company, and yet we see tremendous opportunities for continued growth.” IBM will continue its “aggressive initiatives” to keep developing the core life sciences business, he said, “While at the same time, we look at what’s next, and our view is that what’s on the horizon is a new system of medicine that is much more information-based.”

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 said. “We will be looking for partners to join us in this effort as we continue to grow this business.” 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, Svinte said, the company has identified “early adopters” such as Mayo, DeCode, and Tgen, as well as pharmaceutical companies and some of the national biobanking initiatives, that will look to IBM’s IT know-how and market influence to help drive the nascent field forward. When IBM was first putting the life sciences group together, Svinte said, “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 said 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.”

Martin Ferguson, senior vice president of bioinformatics at biospecimen management firm Ardais, said that IBM’s entry into the personalized medicine marketplace could indeed help drive the field forward. One of the biggest impediments to information-based medicine so far, he said, “is that there’s been a pretty significant lack of an IT focus for years: The information is not patient-centric, it’s provider centric; there’s a lack of standards; and there’s not very much structured clinical information out there.” Big IT players like IBM could put some muscle behind standardization efforts for nomenclature and clinical information, which is “nothing but good for anyone from the really small players like ourselves to pharmaceutical R&D efforts,” he said.

Other observers were not as sanguine. Michael Liebman, CSO of the Windber Institute, pointed out that it’s common for IT companies to think all problems are addressable via data integration. “The opportunity is for them to try and put that infrastructure in place, but put it in place around problems, as opposed to technologies, where the problems are really being defined at the clinical level,” Liebman said. The risk of relying on early adopters, he noted, is that there is a tendency to replicate first-generation approaches that were developed as stopgap measures, “and then all you end up doing is producing that same kind of thing, and you’re basically going to clog the pipeline of new ideas.”

Windber is currently developing its own in-house infrastructure to manage clinical and genomics data. A large IT partner like IBM “can help,” Liebman said, “but it depends what their motivation is. If their motivation is really from the perspective of selling equipment, as opposed to putting their muscle behind making significant changes, then their priorities may get in the way of having a positive impact. But if they recognize that the investment produces a long-term return that is much more significant, then those kinds of partners can be really good.”

Svinte acknowledged that IBM views the “massive data integration challenge” of personalized medicine as a key opportunity to promote its technologies, but “this is not all about IT,” he noted. “What we’re talking about is a different way of conducting medicine in the future, so the IT challenge we will certainly figure out. The other inhibitors will be reviewed really one by one,” he said.

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. [BioInform 10-06-03] 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. According to Svinte, “When we talk about information-based medicine, we view it at very much the heart of our growth strategy for healthcare and life sciences.”

— BT


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