By Sherree DeCovny, Co-Founder and Research Principal
Pharmaceutical companies are exploring the use of blockchain technology to address an array of challenges. At the IEEE’s Pharma Supply Blockchain Forum in Rockville, MD on June 6, a group of pharmaceutical supply chain managers came together to listen to presentations by their peers, vendors, research analysts and lawyers. Importantly, they also had the chance to ask questions – many of which have no definitive answer at this stage.
Here are four key takeaways from the event:
Blockchain could improve visibility, traceability, patient safety and regulatory compliance. The technology has the potential to interconnect node systems that currently don’t speak to each other well – whether they’re between trusted participants in a supply chain, or within an organization. As each drug passes from the manufacturer, wholesaler and shipper to the pharmacy and the patient level, an individual block of immutable data could be created, allowing product to be tracked and traced.
Counterfeit medicines are a major problem in the healthcare system, and it affects all parts of the global supply chain. No one knows the true scope of the problem because it’s very difficult to measure this type of criminal activity. In one high profile case from 2012, the FDA detected fake versions of the anti-cancer drug Avastin, which were made from cornstarch and acetone. Blockchain could potentially unify various technology formats, including barcode scanning and RFID, and create a shared, trustworthy, accountable and transparent data platform that could advance anti-counterfeit activities.
Importantly, the technology could facilitate compliance with the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) in the U.S., which mandates a national track and trace system, and the Falsified Medicines Directive and Medi-Crime Convention in Europe.
Bridging solutions are coming onto the market. Pharmaceutical companies have signed billions of documents with their public key infrastructure (PKI) credential, and they want to be able to access them from the blockchain. Peer Ledger is a bridge solution that helps them do that. The company’s CEO, Dawn Jutla, explained that the solution offers compatible portal services for linked-identity creation, revocation, delegation, application management, approval and asset verification services. Users can sign and verify documents and other assets. They can approve workflow stages with regulator and/or blockchain signatures linked to SAFE-BioPharma credentials.
Pharmaceutical companies can learn from proofs of concept (POCs) in other industries. Like counterfeit medicines, food fraud is a significant problem, especially in developing countries. Krishna Ratakonda, IBM Bellow & CTO, Blockchain Solutions, demonstrated how IBM and Walmart are using smart contracts to track and trace mangoes and pork between China and the U.S., down to individual pallets. Blockchain could replace archaic practices: some companies still use ink stamps, for example. Further, it may be possible to complement blockchain with machine learning to detect spoilage, for instance, and to overlay various datasets such as weather forecasts.
Start small, keep costs low and stay engaged. Dave Mahlum, AMGEN’s Director, New Innovation and Technology, said blockchain projects are a “team sport” involving business and technology partners. AMGEN breaks projects down into three phases: paper analysis, POCs and early pilots. The company hasn’t spent too much time or money on blockchain projects so far. It spends a few hours to build a team, identify a problem, and draw up a shortlist of vendors. A POC only takes about two to four weeks. Mahlum concluded that blockchain is going to be transformational, but it’s not ready for prime time today. That said, he warned his peers about remaining on the sidelines, and encouraged them to stay current with new developments and trends.