Staying Relevant in the Ever-changing Healthcare World: A Case of Cancer Research

What is so fascinating about today’s business world is that technologies have generated ubiquitous connectivity we have never seen before. The subsequent competition and interdependence among companies across industries have created brand-new business functions and partnerships. Who would think that the rising of technology companies like Google, Facebook and Salesforce would one day lead to the merger of Publicis and Omnicom, two of the world’s largest advertising agencies? It must be very difficult for us to imagine in the 90s that IBM would one day stop making personal computers and become a data company. Many hospitals in this country maybe still trying to make sense of the fact that the chief information officer has become one of the most important jobs in their organizations today.

Collaboration across industries has become more common in today's business world (photo credit:

Collaboration across industries has become more common in today’s business world (photo credit:

These changes tell us one thing: staying relevant in today’s ever-changing business climate has never been more crucial.

Changes are also taking place in the pharmaceutical industry.

Developments in genetic engineering have paved the way to a brighter future for drug development. Targeted therapies have shown early signs that personalized medicine may be the answer to some of the most challenging illness like cancer. In the last few years, advances in gene-targeted therapies have significantly changed the landscape of cancer care. Although these new treatments offer the promise of improved clinical outcomes for patients with many types of cancer, the industry faces a major challenge–molecular testing-based targeted therapies remains accessible to only a limited number of patients.

To expand the access to molecular testing and advance gene-based oncology research requires not only advanced equipment in laboratories but also a well-educated and motivated patient community that is ready to take meaningful action.

Although “gene technology” as a buzzword has been constantly mentioned by the media, patient and physician education from the oncology research community about targeted therapy and molecular testing is still highly needed. Meanwhile, researchers also need to make these conversations relevant to patients who are constantly exposed to significant amount of information. To that end, the industry needs to find relevant communication and engagement tactics.

Like other industries, non-traditional partnerships emerge under the new clinical context.

One of such partnerships that has recently drawn a lot of attention in the oncology research community is InVite , a web-based cohort study designed to understand why patients with metastatic cancer respond differently to Avastin (bevacizumab), a drug that targets a gene called VEGF.

The study sponsor Genentech, a pharmaceutical company specialized in oncology picked 23 & Me, a company that makes DNA home testing kit as a partner. The Silicon Valley-based start-up, since it was founded in 2007, has not only generated buzz in the technology world but also gained significant traction among regular consumers. In 2008, Time magazine named the company’s saliva-based DNA-testing service “Invention of the Year”. Over the last few years, 23 & Me raised money from both venture capital firms, as well as companies including Google and Genentech, enabling it to reduce the cost of individual DNA test from $999 to $99. Its customer base increased from 180,000 to 350,000. At a party I went to earlier this year, chatter of the DNA test results from 23 & Me dominated the evening.

Participants of InVite study are asked to fill out a survey online at the time of enrollment and then every 3 months for 1 year after enrollment. Additionally, they use a home kit provided by 23 & Me to gather DNA information from saliva sample.

In order to recruit patients for the study, Genentech produced a YouTube video titled “Spit 4 Science.” The one-minute video featuring real researchers demonstrating how an easy process of using the DNA testing kit to collect saliva can help cancer research was an immediate hit in the quiet pharma social media space. Since its launch on July 26, the video has generated more than 80,000 views and over 50 tweets.

Although ROI of these tactics is yet to be seen, these efforts suggest the significance of staying relevant for organizations in health care as new engagement opportunities emerge because of new technologies and a changing media landscape–consumer-friendly bio technology can help explain complicated theories of molecular testing for cancer treatment and motivate more patients to seek such treatments; social media may be much more effective than traditional channels to recruit patients for clinical studies. As these shifts continue to restructure organizations and change the way they conduct business, those who can identify their “relevant space” for growth will stand out in health care and elsewhere.

(The author has no financial interest in Genentech or 23 and Me)

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