Roche CEO: Big Data needs Big Pharma, and vice versa

Count Roche ($RHHBY) CEO Severin Schwan among those who see digital partnerships as the way Big Pharma can finally take advantage of Big Data. And to his mind, tech companies really need to take advantage of pharma's expertise if they want to get ahead in healthcare.

Roche CEO Severin Schwan

Top tech companies like Google ($GOOG), IBM ($IBM), SAP ($SAP) and their ilk are all obviously interested in healthcare, Schwan told Japan's Nikkei news service. And those companies are experts at digitizing and analyzing data; they have the tools and algorithms necessary to make sense of mountains of information.

"But what they miss is the medical knowledge, the understanding of biology," Schwan pointed out. "They can't ask the right questions. They can program, but they don't know what to program."

And that means pharma needs data, and vice versa, he figures. Roche has set up a partnership with Foundation Medicine--a sequencing and diagnostics company that Schwan says "is really an information company"--to use genetic data to help guide R&D.

"We will probably see more of that in the future," Schwan predicts.

In any case, both drugmakers and data experts have a ways to go before their work can really inform patient care, partly because so much healthcare data is still stored in hard-copy files around the world. Eventually, when patient treatment and outcomes data can be broadly tracked and analyzed, it will become "very important" for clinical decision-making, Schwan says.

In that data-driven future, treatment guidelines will rule the day--partly because there will be more evidence to base new guidelines upon, partly because treatments are changing so rapidly and new approaches can be more complicated than they were in the past.

"[I]t is almost impossible for a physician to digest everything," Schwan said in the interview. "If you have seen what is going on in cancer, no brain can digest everything at the same time. … Over time we will see more electronic help for the doctor to make treatment decisions."

Of course Roche isn't the only drugmaker to have partnered up to use data to drive R&D decisions and treatment advice. Just this week, Allergan ($AGN) said it had teamed up with Humana ($HUM) to gather intelligence on treating a variety of diseases, beginning with a project focused on Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers; the company sells a suite of drugs for the disease, including the new combo drug Namzaric.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca is working with PatientsLikeMe to harness the patient-driven site's info to guide R&D in respiratory disease, among others, and with the electronic health record company Practice Fusion to aggregate data on each doctors' asthma patients to help them ID high-risk patients and improve treatment compliance.

And then there's Sanofi ($SNY), which recently cast its lot in with Google's life sciences-focused business. The two companies are going to work together to assess diabetes care and treatment, and develop new technologies to address the common disease.

Which brings us to one of Nikkei's questions for Schwan: Given that healthcare's future will depend on digital, is Google a competitor--or a potential partner?

"I don't know yet," Schwan said. "We will see how things go."

- see the Nikkei story