Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation says there needs to be a shift in how healthcare research is funded to focus on early detection and curing rather than managing diseases.
“When you look at the investment in research in the pharma industry, it’s all designed to treat established diseases,” William Hait, global head of Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) External Innovation, told delegates at the BIO-Europe Spring event, held digitally last week due to the coronavirus crisis.
While there have been notable exceptions—particularly in the cardiovascular diseases where Hait said it was realized early on that decreasing the amount of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol in the body could reduce the chances of having a heart attack or stroke—too much R&D in areas like cancer and diabetes have focused on managing conditions rather than curing or preventing them.
“There has to be an investment in the understanding and basic research of how to prevent a disease, or if a disease is beginning to take hold on how to intercept the process,” he said. And, he continued, “if you can detect diseases early enough, we should be focusing on curing diseases, and not just managing them chronically. There has to be a fundamental shift in our thinking, shift in how research is funded.”
This is the basis of the World Without Disease Accelerator (WWDA), which launched in 2015 as a research group within J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals division. The group was told to envision how it would like healthcare to operate in the future, and according to Hait, the teams involved turned to their cars for inspiration.
“When a car rolls off the assembly line, all the specs of the car are known,” he said. “The car is then embedded with sensors and if the car begins to go out of spec the ‘check engine light’ goes on.
“What they were saying is when we are born, we’ll soon know all of our specs through [greater use of] omics and other ways to identify disease susceptibility. We’d like to then understand our risk. We’ll begin to know this when huge amounts of data are fed into our systems and when we know our risk, then the risk benefit to make an interception to prevent a disease will make a lot more sense.”
“We now have at our fingertips an enormous amount of information. The problem is there are several steps to go from recording all these data points to actually making something out of them,” Hait said, mirroring that of others in the healthtech space.
“We first have to aggregate the data, bring it into a format that’s curatable, and then it takes data scientists and mathematicians—people who write the algorithms—to find the signals from the noise. Then you have to have people familiar with biology and medicine to say what does this signal actually mean to be able to translate that into action.”
But there have been some success stories, he explained, citing biventricular pacemakers and implantable defibrillators, which are “literally sensing second by second all the information coming out of the electrical systems of our heart.”
To further find signals in the “noise” of data, partnerships are critical as “no company, even one as large and diverse as J&J, can take this on alone,” Hait stressed.
One example is the firm’s collaboration with Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), which recently saw a study begin to determine how earlier detection of atrial fibrillation impacts stroke in people age 65 or older using data from an iPhone app and the Apple Watch. “We met with them [Apple] a few years back and saw the ability of the watch to do electrocardiograms. What we realized was the potential to collect data on people who may be walking around with asymptomatic arrhythmias for which we actually have a treatment.”
Further innovation collaborations are being proactively sought by J&J, through its JLabs start-up incubator initiative and a venture fund that looks to invest in companies that speak to the firms WWDA approach—last year’s $3.4 billion acquisition of medical robotics developer Auris Health being an example.
Having “weigh stations” set up in in innovation hubs such as Cambridge, MA, San Francisco, London, Paris, Shanghai, and more has also helped advance therapy pipeline and healthtech presence, as these become “a portal of entry to J&J,” for startups, Hait added.
“We’ve set up organization that is part of global external innovation group that allows us to view the world as an innovation grid. Our job is to plug ourselves into the grid and pull down the innovation, and pay for it as well, as we invest in these companies and these incredible scientists,” he said.
“It’s really been tremendously rewarding and allowed us to fill our pipeline with previously unimagined opportunities that is required to sustain a business as large as ours but most importantly that will really transform health for humanity.”