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Sun Exec Gives a Glimpse of the Life Science Industry s Wired Future at Pharma 2001

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The “convergence between biology and IT” has become the mantra for information technologies companies eager to gain a share of what may be the last remaining growth market in high-tech. But while many cite the volume of data stemming from genomics and proteomics as the single biggest IT challenge facing the life sciences today, Dirk Heyman, global head of life science and consumer product industries at Sun Microsystems, told BioInform that other key drivers are often overlooked that will impact how information technology is used beyond the discovery phase of the drug pipeline.

Addressing the Economist’s Pharmaceuticals 2001 conference held in Princeton, NJ, December 3-4, Heyman said that recent trends in the life science industry itself, when combined with the ever-more pervasive nature of IT and other societal changes, will merge information technology with pharmaceutical R&D in unexpected ways.

While acknowledging that the computational and data challenges presented by the boom in genomics-based research have yet to be mastered, Heyman said it’s time to look beyond the research-focused applications of information technology and address the obstacles thrown up by other forces. These include the trend toward partnerships and collaborations in the industry, which will lead to a greater dependence on enterprise software solutions, networks, and information-sharing and storage tools. Another challenge lies in the diminishing returns many large pharmaceutical companies are seeing from traditional marketing approaches and should eventually expect to see from direct-to-consumer advertising as well. Heyman said that pharma might go the way of consumer product companies like Proctor & Gamble, who are increasingly relying on “interactive” web-based approaches to develop customized products.

In response to these developments, Heyman envisions a network of “smart services” that will connect every step in the drug discovery and development pipeline all the way to the consumer. Sun is involved in a number of collaborative efforts to bring these services out of the pilot stage and into practice. In one such effort, the AutoID consortium, Sun is contributing aspects of the software infrastructure that will eventually enable what Heyman called “T2T” — things talking to things.

Based on research at MIT and Cambridge University, the AutoID collaborators are developing chips that can be embedded in consumer products to track their progress from the R&D stage to manufacturing, sales, use, and disposal. Unlike barcode technology, which assigns a single code to a class of products, the AutoID radiofrequency tag carries a unique 96-bit serial number for each individual item produced. The chips use the RF signals to “talk” to each other and to sensor-enabled readers located anywhere along the supply chain.

The technology could offer a number of benefits to pharmaceutical companies, Heyman said, not only by reducing production and distribution costs, but far downstream, where products and services merge at the point of care. For example, a patient’s genotype and medical history could be embedded on his or her own chip or smart card, which could communicate with the embedded chip on a drug product to gauge efficacy as well as the risk of allergy or toxicity, he said.

Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer are among the few pharmaceutical companies to join the 43-member AutoID consortium so far, but Heyman said he expects several more to sign on as the technology moves beyond proof of concept.

“The life sciences is one of the industries that can benefit most from this type of technology,” said Heyman. “One of the promises of genomics is that we can do segmented medication and find the right medicine for the right disease. If you really want to exploit what research will do there, you really need an infrastructure in place that ensures that the right patient gets the right medication.”

A prototype is currently being tested on pallet shipments in the US, he said, and will move to the unit level next spring. Heyman expects the complete offering to be available in early 2003.

One barrier to adoption so far is cost. The RF tags currently cost around 50 cents each, but Heyman is confident that economies of scale will bring the cost down to one cent per tag by 2005.

Sun is also partnering with an undisclosed pharmaceutical company in a study to track patient compliance using a range of tools that tell the patient when to take the drug, note whether the drug was taken and when, and track the patient’s response. The project combines off-the shelf database, web, and wireless technology with proprietary software that Sun has developed. The current system is exclusive to a specific disease state for Sun’s present partner, but Heyman said the long-term view is to make it available for other companies as well and promote its use through open standards.

— BT

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