Microsoft’s Life Sciences Game Plan: Use IT to Usher in the World of Predictive, Personalized Medicine

11/13/08Follow @xconomy

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When the talk turned to Microsoft’s strategy to capture this emerging information technology opportunity, things started sounding vague and fuzzy for me (although to be fair, Hector ripped through a one-hour presentation in 15 minutes). The company has about 700 people working on its life sciences strategy, Hector said. They are focused on how to speed up innovation by helping researchers and drugmakers bring their treatments to the market faster, and to enable doctors and patients to share health data more efficiently through programs like HealthVault.

Montgomery, who has developed five FDA-approved drugs, didn’t sound like an eager buyer. He told an anecdote about when, as a young doctor in San Francisco in the 1980s on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic, he drafted a 5-page clinical trial design in one afternoon, enrolled more than 500 patients in three weeks, had a successful result three months later, and whipped it up in an FDA application that was approved.

Now, it takes two months to write up a clinical trial plan, he says. Instead of two or three weeks to get an ethics review board to approve the study, it now takes four to six months because of all the cautious lawyering involved, Montgomery says. Then clinical trial sites usually aren’t motivated to recruit patients, because they complain they aren’t making enough money off them from the sponsors, usually a pharmaceutical company. These cultural problems aren’t something that a new software program can fix, he said. “The problem is not really operational systems. We are interacting with a healthcare system that makes it nearly impossible to do clinical studies.”

Still, the information technology sounds like a big part of the problem to this reporter’s ear. Many researchers cling to old Word and Excel programs to manage reams of genomic data, which those programs were never intended to handle, said Bob Webber, CEO of TranSenda International, a Bellevue, WA-based maker of custom life sciences software.

Small software companies are making customized versions of SharePoint so that far-flung collaborators on a global clinical trial can work together more efficiently with patient records. But change isn’t coming easy. One questioner from the audience said his medical center just switched recently from paper records for patients to an electronic system. But people are still making paper copies from the electronic record, he said.

Before ripping too hard into the healthcare Luddites, WBBA president Jack Faris asked the audience whether they voted via electronic machines, or chose the comfort of a paper ballot. Only a couple hands went up. Sounds like the pre-diabetic woman from the TV commercial, who’s willing to have her health records zip around the healthcare system at electron speed, might still be pretty far off in the future.

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