Will Blockchain Technology Usher in a Healthcare Data Revolution?
The hacker collective known as the Dark Overlord first surfaced in June 2016, when it advertised more than 600,000 patient files from three U.S. healthcare organizations for sale on the dark web. The group, which also attempted to extort ransom from its victims, soon offered another 9 million records pilfered from health insurance companies and provider networks across the country.
Since 2009, federal regulators have counted nearly 5,000 major data breaches in the United States alone, affecting some 260 million individuals.
Last October, apparently seeking publicity as well as cash, the hackers stole a trove of potentially scandalous data from a celebrity plastic surgery clinic in London—including photos of in-progress genitalia- and breast-enhancement surgeries. "We have TBs [terabytes] of this shit. Databases, names, everything," a gang representative told a reporter. "There are some royal families in here."
Bandits like these are prowling healthcare's digital highways in growing numbers. Since 2009, federal regulators have counted nearly 5,000 major data breaches in the United States alone, affecting some 260 million individuals. Although hacker incidents represent less than 20 percent of the total breaches, they account for almost 80 percent of the affected patients. Such attacks expose patients to potential blackmail or identity theft, enable criminals to commit medical fraud or file false tax returns, and may even allow hostile state actors to sabotage electric grids or other infrastructure by e-mailing employees malware disguised as medical notices. According to the consulting agency Accenture, data theft will cost the healthcare industry $305 billion between 2015 and 2019, with annual totals doubling from $40 billion to $80 billion.
Blockchain could put patients in control of their own data, empowering them to access, share, and even sell their medical information as they see fit.
One possible solution to this crisis involves radically retooling the way healthcare data is stored and shared—by using blockchain, the still-emerging information technology that underlies cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. And blockchain-enabled IT systems, boosters say, could do much more than prevent the theft of medical data. Such networks could revolutionize healthcare delivery on many levels, creating efficiencies that would reduce medical errors, improve coordination between providers, drive down costs, and give researchers unprecedented insights into patterns of disease. Perhaps most transformative, blockchain could put patients in control of their own data, empowering them to access, share, and even sell their medical information as they see fit. Widespread adoption could result in "a new kind of healthcare economy, in which data and services are quantifiable and exchangeable, with strong guarantees around both the security and privacy of sensitive information," wrote W. Brian Smith, chief scientist of healthcare-blockchain startup PokitDok, in a recent white paper.
Around the world, entrepreneurs, corporations, and government agencies are hopping aboard the blockchain train. A survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value, released in late 2016, found that 16 percent of healthcare executives in 16 countries planned to begin implementing some form of the technology in the coming year; 90 percent planned to launch a pilot program in the next two years. In 2017, Estonia became the first country to switch its medical-records system to a blockchain-based framework. Great Britain and Dubai are exploring a similar move. Yet in countries with more fragmented health systems, most notably the U.S., the challenges remain formidable. Some of the most advanced healthcare applications envisioned for blockchain, moreover, raise technological and ethical questions whose answers may not arrive anytime soon.
By creating a detailed, comprehensive, and immutable timeline of medical transactions, blockchain-based recordkeeping could help providers gauge a patient's long-term health patterns in a way that's never before been possible.
What Exactly Is Blockchain, Anyway?
To understand the buzz around blockchain, it's necessary to grasp (at least loosely) how the technology works. Ordinary digital recordkeeping systems rely on a central administrator that acts as gatekeeper to a treasury of data; if you can sneak past the guard, you can often gain access to the entire hoard, and your intrusion may go undetected indefinitely. Blockchain, by contrast, employs a network of synchronized, replicated databases. Information is scattered among these nodes, rather than on a single server, and is exchanged through encrypted, peer-to-peer pathways. Each transaction is visible to every computer on the network, and must be approved by a majority in order to be successfully completed. Each batch of transactions, or "block," is date- and time-stamped, marked with the user's identity, and given a cryptographic code, which is posted to every node. These blocks form a "chain," preserved in an electronic ledger, that can be read by all users but can't be edited. Any unauthorized access, or attempt at tampering, can be quickly neutralized by these overlapping safeguards. Even if a hacker managed to break into the system, penetrating deeply would be extraordinarily difficult.
Because blockchain technology shares transaction records throughout a network, it could eliminate communication bottlenecks between different components of the healthcare system (primary care physicians, specialists, nurses, and so on). And because blockchain-based systems are designed to incorporate programs known as "smart contracts," which automate functions previously requiring human intervention, they could reduce dangerous slipups as well as tedious and costly paperwork. For example, when a patient gets a checkup, sees a specialist, and fills a prescription, all these actions could be automatically recorded on his or her electronic health record (EHR), checked for errors, submitted for billing, and entered on insurance claims—which could be adjudicated and reimbursed automatically as well. "Blockchain has the potential to remove a lot of intermediaries from existing workflows, whether digital or nondigital," says Kamaljit Behera, an industry analyst for the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.
The possible upsides don't end there. By creating a detailed, comprehensive, and immutable timeline of medical transactions, blockchain-based recordkeeping could help providers gauge a patient's long-term health patterns in a way that's never before been possible. In addition to data entered by their caregivers, individuals could use app-based technologies or wearables to transmit other information to their records, such as diet, exercise, and sleep patterns, adding new depth to their medical portraits.
Many experts expect healthcare blockchain to take root more slowly in the U.S. than in nations with government-run national health services.
Smart contracts could also allow patients to specify who has access to their data. "If you get an MRI and want your orthopedist to see it, you can add him to your network instead of carrying a CD into his office," explains Andrew Lippman, associate director of the MIT Media Lab, who helped create a prototype healthcare blockchain system called MedRec that's currently being tested at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. "Or you might make a smart contract to allow your son or daughter to access your healthcare records if something happens to you." Another option: permitting researchers to analyze your data for scientific purposes, whether anonymously or with your name attached.
The Recent History, and Looking Ahead
Over the past two years, a crowd of startups has begun vying for a piece of the emerging healthcare blockchain market. Some, like PokitDok and Atlanta-based Patientory, plan to mint proprietary cryptocurrencies, which investors can buy in lieu of stock, medical providers may earn as a reward for achieving better outcomes, and patients might score for meeting wellness goals or participating in clinical trials. (Patientory's initial coin offering, or ICO, raised more than $7 million in three days.) Several fledgling healthcare-blockchain companies have found powerful corporate partners: Intel for Silicon Valley's PokitDok, Kaiser Permanente for Patientory, Philips for Los Angeles-based Gem Health. At least one established provider network, Change Healthcare, is developing blockchain-based systems of its own. Two months ago, Change launched what it calls the first "enterprise-scale" blockchain network in U.S. healthcare—a system to track insurance claim submissions and remittances.
No one, however, has set a roll-out date for a full-blown, blockchain-based EHR system in this country. "We have yet to see anything move from the pilot phase to some kind of production status," says Debbie Bucci, an IT architect in the federal government's Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. Indeed, many experts expect healthcare blockchain to take root more slowly here than in nations with government-run national health services. In America, a typical patient may have dealings with a family doctor who keeps everything on paper, an assortment of hospitals that use different EHR systems, and an insurer whose system for processing claims is separate from that of the healthcare providers. To help bridge these gaps, a consortium called the Hyperledger Healthcare Working Group (which includes many of the leading players in the field) is developing standard protocols for blockchain interoperability and other functions. Adding to the complexity is the federal Health Insurance and Portability Act (HIPAA), which governs who can access patient data and under what circumstances. "Healthcare blockchain is in a very nascent stage," says Behera. "Coming up with regulations and other guidelines, and achieving large-scale implementation, will take some time."
The ethical implications of buying and selling personal genomic data in an electronic marketplace are doubtless open to debate.
How long? Behera, like other analysts, estimates that relatively simple applications, such as revenue-cycle management systems, could become commonplace in the next five years. More ambitious efforts might reach fruition in a decade or so. But once the infrastructure for healthcare blockchain is fully established, its uses could go far beyond keeping better EHRs.
A handful of scientists and entrepreneurs are already working to develop one visionary application: managing genomic data. Last month, Harvard University geneticist George Church—one of the most influential figures in his discipline—launched a business called Nebula Genomics. It aims to set up an exchange in which individuals can use "Neptune tokens" to purchase DNA sequencing, which will be stored in the company's blockchain-based system; research groups will be able to pay clients for their data using the same cryptocurrency. Luna DNA, founded by a team of biotech veterans in San Diego, plans a similar service, as does a Moscow-based startup called the Zenome Project.
Hossein Rahnama, CEO of the mobile-tech company Flybits and director of research at the Ryerson Centre for Cloud and Context-Aware Computing in Toronto, envisions a more personalized way of sharing genomic data via blockchain. His firm is working with a U.S. insurance company to develop a service that would allow clients in their 20s and 30s to connect with people in their 70s or 80s with similar genomes. The young clients would learn how the elders' lifestyle choices had influenced their health, so that they could modify their own habits accordingly. "It's intergenerational wisdom-sharing," explains Rahnama, who is 38. "I would actually pay to be a part of that network."
The ethical implications of buying and selling personal genomic data in an electronic marketplace are doubtless open to debate. Such commerce could greatly expand the pool of subjects for research in many areas of medicine, enabling the kinds of breakthroughs that only Big Data can provide. Yet it could also lead millions to surrender the most private information of all—the secrets of their cells—to buyers with less benign intentions. The Dark Overlord, one might argue, could not hope for a more satisfying victory.
These scenarios, however, are pure conjecture. After the first web page was posted, in 1991, Lippman observes, "a whole universe developed that you couldn't have imagined on Day 1." The same, he adds, is likely true for healthcare blockchain. "Our vision is to make medical records useful for you and for society, and to give you more control over your own identity. Time will tell."
Tiny, tough “water bears” may help bring new vaccines and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa
Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.
Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.
Formulating biologics to withstand drying and hot temperatures has been the holy grail for pharmaceutical researchers for decades. It’s a hard feat to manage. “Biologic pharmaceuticals are highly efficacious, but many are inherently unstable,” says Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at University of Wyoming. Therefore, during storage and shipping, they must be refrigerated at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit). Some must be frozen, typically at -20 degrees Celsius, but sometimes as low -90 degrees Celsius as was the case with the Pfizer Covid vaccine.
For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
The costly cold chain
The logistics network that ensures those temperature requirements are met from production to administration is called the cold chain. This cold chain network is often unreliable or entirely lacking in remote, rural areas in developing nations that have malfunctioning electrical grids. “Almost all routine vaccines require a cold chain,” says Christopher Fox, senior vice president of formulations at the Access to Advanced Health Institute. But when the power goes out, so does refrigeration, putting refrigerated or frozen medical products at risk. Consequently, the mRNA vaccines developed for Covid-19 and other conditions, as well as more traditional vaccines for cholera, tetanus and other diseases, often can’t be delivered to the most remote parts of the world.
To understand the scope of the challenge, consider this: In the U.S., more than 984 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been distributed so far. Each one needed refrigeration that, even in the U.S., proved challenging. Now extrapolate to all vaccines and the entire world. For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
Globally, the cold chain packaging market is valued at over $15 billion and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033.
Freeze-drying, also called lyophilization, which is common for many vaccines, isn’t always an option. Many freeze-dried vaccines still need refrigeration, and even medicines approved for storage at ambient temperatures break down in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. “Even in a freeze-dried state, biologics often will undergo partial rehydration and dehydration, which can be extremely damaging,” Boothby explains.
The cold chain is also very expensive to maintain. The global pharmaceutical cold chain packaging market is valued at more than $15 billion, and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033, according to a report by Future Market Insights. This cost is only expected to grow. According to the consulting company Accenture, the number of medicines that require the cold chain are expected to grow by 48 percent, compared to only 21 percent for non-cold-chain therapies.
Tardigrades to the rescue
Tardigrades are only about a millimeter long – with four legs and claws, and they lumber around like bears, thus their nickname – but could provide a big solution. “Tardigrades are unique in the animal kingdom, in that they’re able to survive a vast array of environmental insults,” says Boothby, the Wyoming professor. “They can be dried out, frozen, heated past the boiling point of water and irradiated at levels that are thousands of times more than you or I could survive.” So, his team is gradually unlocking tardigrades’ survival secrets and applying them to biologic pharmaceuticals to make them withstand both extreme heat and desiccation without losing efficacy.
Boothby’s team is focusing on blood clotting factor VIII, which, as the name implies, causes blood to clot. Currently, Boothby is concentrating on the so-called cytoplasmic abundant heat soluble (CAHS) protein family, which is found only in tardigrades, protecting them when they dry out. “We showed we can desiccate a biologic (blood clotting factor VIII, a key clotting component) in the presence of tardigrade proteins,” he says—without losing any of its effectiveness.
The researchers mixed the tardigrade protein with the blood clotting factor and then dried and rehydrated that substance six times without damaging the latter. This suggests that biologics protected with tardigrade proteins can withstand real-world fluctuations in humidity.
Furthermore, Boothby’s team found that when the blood clotting factor was dried and stabilized with tardigrade proteins, it retained its efficacy at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Celsius. That’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than the 58 degrees Celsius that the World Meteorological Organization lists as the hottest recorded air temperature on earth. In contrast, without the protein, the blood clotting factor degraded significantly. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in March.
Although tardigrades rarely live more than 2.5 years, they have survived in a desiccated state for up to two decades, according to Animal Diversity Web. This suggests that tardigrades’ CAHS protein can protect biologic pharmaceuticals nearly indefinitely without refrigeration or freezing, which makes it significantly easier to deliver them in locations where refrigeration is unreliable or doesn’t exist.
The tricks of the tardigrades
Besides the CAHS proteins, tardigrades rely on a type of sugar called trehalose and some other protectants. So, rather than drying up, their cells solidify into rigid, glass-like structures. As that happens, viscosity between cells increases, thereby slowing their biological functions so much that they all but stop.
Now Boothby is combining CAHS D, one of the proteins in the CAHS family, with trehalose. He found that CAHS D and trehalose each protected proteins through repeated drying and rehydrating cycles. They also work synergistically, which means that together they might stabilize biologics under a variety of dry storage conditions.
“We’re finding the protective effect is not just additive but actually is synergistic,” he says. “We’re keen to see if something like that also holds true with different protein combinations.” If so, combinations could possibly protect against a variety of conditions.
Before any stabilization technology for biologics can be commercialized, it first must be approved by the appropriate regulators. In the U.S., that’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developing a new formulation would require clinical testing and vast numbers of participants. So existing vaccines and biologics likely won’t be re-formulated for dry storage. “Many were developed decades ago,” says Fox. “They‘re not going to be reformulated into thermo-stable vaccines overnight,” if ever, he predicts.
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits.
Instead, this technology is most likely to be used for the new products and formulations that are just being created. New and improved vaccines will be the first to benefit. Good candidates include the plethora of mRNA vaccines, as well as biologic pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases that affect parts of the world where reliable cold chain is difficult to maintain, Boothby says. Some examples include new, more effective vaccines for malaria and for pathogenic Escherichia coli, which causes diarrhea.
Tallying up the benefits
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits. For instance, MenAfriVac, a meningitis vaccine (without tardigrade proteins) developed for sub-Saharan Africa, can be stored at up to 40 degrees Celsius for four days before administration. “If you have a few days where you don’t need to maintain the cold chain, it’s easier to transport vaccines to remote areas,” Fox says, where refrigeration does not exist or is not reliable.
Better health is an obvious benefit. MenAfriVac reduced suspected meningitis cases by 57 percent in the overall population and more than 99 percent among vaccinated individuals.
Lower healthcare costs are another benefit. One study done in Togo found that the cold chain-related costs increased the per dose vaccine price up to 11-fold. The ability to ship the vaccines using the usual cold chain, but transporting them at ambient temperatures for the final few days cut the cost in half.
There are environmental benefits, too, such as reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cold chain transports consume 20 percent more fuel than non-cold chain shipping, due to refrigeration equipment, according to the International Trade Administration.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the new, oral Vaxart COVID-19 vaccine (which doesn’t require refrigeration) with four intramuscular vaccines (which require refrigeration or freezing). While the Vaxart vaccine is still in clinical trials, the study found that “up to 82.25 million kilograms of CO2 could be averted by using oral vaccines in the U.S. alone.” That is akin to taking 17,700 vehicles out of service for one year.
Although tardigrades’ protective proteins won’t be a component of biologic pharmaceutics for several years, scientists are proving that this approach is viable. They are hopeful that a day will come when vaccines and biologics can be delivered anywhere in the world without needing refrigerators or freezers en route.
Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" --Diwakar Davar.
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of Clostridioides difficile, a persistant intestinal infection, and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
The ABCDE of melanoma detection
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral fecal microbiota product for C. difficile, hopefully paving the way for more.
An older version of this hit article was first published on May 18, 2021