FEATURE: Healthcare still has much to learn from IT

Former Intel chief Andy Grove says the healthcare business has much to learn from IT.

Over the years, Andy Grove has learned a thing or two about efficiency and development. As the head of the global chip maker Intel, he helped guide a company through a monstrous growth phase while earning a reputation for unparalleled technological advancement.

So when Grove, recently retired as chairman of Intel, turned his eyes to the healthcare industry, he admitted to some frustration with its shortcomings. In a piece written for the Journal of the American Medical Association, Grove spelled out the comparisons between a business he helped shape and a healthcare field that seems to be a permanent laggard in the area of innovation.

"To be sure," observed Grove, "there are additional fundamental differences between the two industries. One industry deals with the well-defined world of silicon, the other with living human beings. Humans are incredibly complex biological systems, and working with them has to be subject to safety, legal, and ethical concerns. Nevertheless, it is helpful to mine this comparison for every measure of learning that can be found."

And Grove isn't reluctant to plow ahead. Lessons from the IT world could help healthcare transform the pace of new drug development, design and build more efficient hospitals, push electronic standardization and gain some measure of control over the massive -- and increasingly unbearable -- cost of healthcare in the US.

At Intel, Grove helped shape an industry that barreled along in conformance with Moore's Law, doubling the power of a computer chip every year. The reason is simple. Each new experiment on a theory of chip development was tied to a test chip. Scientists knew quickly if they were headed in the right direction or if they should abandon the idea. And the time it took for a "knowledge turn" -- the time it takes for a hypothesis to be tested, results assessed and a new hypothesis to emerge -- was reduced to a rapid pace.

Compare that to the development of new cancer drugs, Grove says, where a single research scientist could expect to engage in only two or three knowledge turns in the course of a career as each new drug lead was slowly tested over a period of years. Animal models that are used in early testing are only of dubious significance, and the time it takes to truly test the drug -- and see if the hypothesis was headed anywhere -- involves long stretches of time and significant amounts of money.

The crucial gap in drug research, says Grove, could be closed quickly with biomarkers that could indicate much sooner if a clinical endpoint was achievable. "If reliable biomarkers existed that track the progression of disease, their impact on knowledge turns and consequently on the speed of development of treatments and drugs could be dramatic."

But there isn't nearly enough R&D money being spent on biomarkers. In the chip world, the focus on knowledge turns required about 10 percent of the R&D budget. But if you look at just the $28 billion research budget of the National Institutes of Health, it's apparent that nothing close to $2.8 billion is being devoted to new biomarker development.

More money spent in the biomarker field would lead to a rapid increase in knowledge turns, asserts Grove, and push the drug industry to a much faster development path for new drugs.

John Carroll is editor of FierceBiotech.

The Friday Feature is a regular part of FierceBiotech. If you'd like to contribute one, drop me a line: [email protected].

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