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Blockchain 101 for Pharma Executives


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2018
Volume 38
Issue 7

With blockchain still in the potential but not proven area of the pharma enterprise, when is the technology the right choice for you?

Blockchain has been discussed for a couple of years now. First, it’s hype. Then it’s a fad. Then, maybe, a glimmer of possibility. Then, it’s “maybe we need one of those blockchain things.” And depending on which area of the business you are working in, blockchain appears to have great potential to help certain aspects of

Lisa Henderson

drug development, specifically in the front end and back end-clinical trials and manufacturing. But having said that, blockchain is still in the potential but not proven area of the pharma enterprise.

I attended the Advents Serialization Innovation Summit in Philadelphia last month, which had an impressive lineup of speakers around “Track and Trace” and the current US and EU regulations, as well as the industry compliance around that topic. Blockchain is but one way that serialization could be achieved. One of the experts from Microsoft offered a very thorough explanation around what blockchain is or isn’t, and what executives should ask before going down the blockchain rabbit hole. 

Tianna Umann, a solutions architect for Microsoft, explained that blockchain is not bitcoin. She called public blockchain “bitcoin 1.0.” For professional or corporate purposes, enterprise blockchain would be the technology. It is not accessible by the public and doesn’t represent a currency. For our purposes, from now on, blockchain refers to enterprise blockchain.

Umann also stressed what blockchain is NOT. It is not a data warehouse. It is not an internal database. It does not store data. It has no cryptocurrency. And it is not the solution to all of your problems.

So what is blockchain? Blockchain is single, trusted ledger by which all participants have a mirrored image and visibility to the ledger at the same time. The parties within the blockchain have to be admitted into the peer-to-peer system. And processes that are part of the blockchain are digitized and integrated into the blockchain.

No one can remove information or “delete” information in the blockchain. Any data in the ledger can be changed or over-written, but that is visible to all in the ledger in the peer-to-peer of who made what change, the time, and date.

When is blockchain the right choice for you? Umann suggested if any of the three following criteria fit your situation, then blockchain might be right for you.

  • Is it a process that crosses boundaries of trust?

  • Do multiple parties need to work on the same data?

  • Are there intermediaries that currently control the only source of truth? (these intermediaries may incur cost and decrease efficiencies.)

  • Does the process involve manual verification steps that have low value?

Umann continued that some of these questions could be a database fix, and not necessarily in a blockchain deployment. Additionally, there are current concerns that blockchain may be slow. A current popular public blockchain, Ethereum, is not proving to be scalable with low data per second transfer speeds. Umann said that each system has to validate identity, logic, and properties, which takes time and is based on the computing power of the peer-to-peer distributed systems.

Many in the audience believed with Umann that there are clear use cases for blockchain, including DNA sequencing, health data, prescription data, and personalized medicine. Use cases should start appearing soon, so we will wait for theory to practice.


Lisa Henderson is Editor-in-Chief of Pharm Exec. She can be reached at lisa.henderson@ubm.com. Follow Lisa on Twitter: @trialsonline

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