Columbia Blockchain Challenge Invites Students To Assess Gamifying and Improving Clinical Trials
My father died last year. The cause, according to the death certificate, was “acute kidney injury.” Listed below this on the certificate under “other significant conditions” was “esophageal cancer.” That public record, presumably the type of thing we might one day commit to a blockchain, omitted the fact that he had been taking an experimental treatment pursuant to a clinical trial. That trial had actually done quite a number on his cancer cells, and in short order too — the evidence of disease entering 2018 was much reduced from the level of November 2017. Unfortunately, the side effects began to take their toll. According to my non-expert analysis, informed in large part by discussions with my father, it was the clinical trial that should have been listed as the cause of his demise. But don’t get me wrong — we knew the risks, at least as much as laymen can, I think. And I gather, without knowing, that Johns Hopkins, which was running the trial, duly noted the ultimate results in its trial records.
CryptoOracle is a sponsor of a blockchain innovation challenge underway at Columbia University, focused on assessing whether and how blockchain technology might be applied to the recruitment for and management of medical clinical trials. Released to Masters students across the programs at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies (SPS), the challenge is open to any Columbia student or alum who joins a team wishing to participate. Team presentations and awards to the winning teams will occur during the SPS’s Career Week on-campus events in February. Last year at Career Week, there were roughly 100 speakers, a dozen Columbia Faculty/Academic Directors, and 6,500 event tickets reserved.
Looking beyond my opening anecdote, clinical trials are a big deal, a key gauntlet for new treatments to make it to patients. ClinicalTrials.gov currently lists nearly 300,000 active clinical research studies.
Slow and inadequate recruitment and low retention of patients for trials are major sources of research inefficiency, in terms of cost, timely delivery of research, and reliability of findings. A majority of pharmaceutical trials fail to meet enrollment deadlines. Small differences in enrollment rates can result in large additional costs for trials.
Given challenges in patient recruitment and the importance of results, it is unsurprising that clinical trials face problems with management and data integrity. There are numerous ethical guidelines and legal regulations relating to clinical trials, including the use of incentives, for patients and others, in the clinical trial process. Nevertheless, reports questioning the data produced by clinical trials are common enough.
One origin of the challenge is the experience which CryptoOracle had as partner with two capstone projects for the Applied Analytics program at SPS last fall semester. One student team assessed how gamifying the consumer’s search for various products and services through a “paid attention” crypto token might apply to different verticals, of which clinical trial recruitment was one. Another student team took a detailed look at the landscape of blockchain projects in the healthcare space.
Clinical trial recruitment was one of the “verticals” recommended in particular for assessing the potential for gamification through blockchain-based incentives. Compared to other, more typically commercial, verticals leading to a consumer transaction, clinical trial recruitment is somewhat of an outlier. Nevertheless, the pharma industry is no stranger to marketing, and one particularly valuable audience for pharma messaging is in fact the patients who are eligible to participate in the clinical trials essential to having new treatments come to market.
Participating teams will also have the benefit of exhaustive work giving an overview of the types of blockchain projects in the healthcare sector. As my colleague Dr. Alex Cahana has chronicled through numerous posts (for example, here and here), blockchain’s potential to improve trust among numerous parties — many of whom may see themselves as having differing interests — makes its approach a fertile field for the healthcare industry. A number of projects are specifically working on use of distributed ledger technology for trials, such as Science Distributed, ClinTex, and Lucidium.
We’ll have more as the challenge progresses. Sponsors are welcome to join the effort. Columbia students are welcome to enter the challenge, and those who do not enter are encouraged to look at the submissions of entrants, and attend the final presentations. Everyone is welcome to contribute in their way to improving clinical trials, and their benefits for us all.
Thanks to Alex Cahana for his review of and input into this article.