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Here's where drug-makers are heading

Severin Schwan

BASEL -- Severin Schwan, chief executive of Roche Holdings, the Switzerland-based pharmaceutical conglomerate, sees big changes ahead for his industry. Call it the marriage of big pharma and big data.

     Schwan recently sat down with The Nikkei to discuss the direction of medicine.

Q: Let's talk about how the Internet is affecting the pharma industry.

A: I think it will get very important as we go forward. The reason is as follows: If you go today to your doctor for a medical checkup, as I just recently did, the doctor pulls out a physical file out of the drawer. He takes notes, asks you some questions, makes perhaps a blood-test, makes the diagnosis, gives you treatment, if necessary, and then the file goes back into the drawer. That's what's happening today. The same is happening in hospitals. Their archive is full of patient files. Even though all the tools are available -- the Internet, clouds -- medical information today is stored 99% in the traditional, analogue way -- in handwritten notes which are in physical files.

     I have no doubt whatsoever that in the future the information will be digitized. It will be on a digital platform. When it's digitized, you can do something with it. In particular, you can correlate that with certain treatment options. If you see that medicine is being used in clinical routine very broadly, you can see in which groups the medicine works really well, for which patients it doesn't work as well. Maybe [for some] patient groups, [it will] have side effects which you didn't see in the clinical trials, and that information is incredibly important for R&D because it can give you new hints, but it is also very important for clinical decision-making. What I see happening over time is medical information being digitized, and as a result ... it will be analyzed and it will influence research and development and medical decision-making.

Q: You see it leading to more efficiency and transparency?

A: Yes, probably as a consequence. That' true. Most probably, as things get more transparent, we will see more treatment guidelines. Physicians will use more of these advice systems, also because it is almost impossible for a physician to digest everything. If you have seen what is going on in cancer, no brain can digest everything at the same time. To keep up today is very difficult. Over time, we will see more electronic help for the doctor to make treatment decisions.

Q: Google: competitor or partner in the future?

A: I don't know yet. We will see how things go. One thing is for sure, companies like Google, IBM, SAP and etc. -- they are all interested in healthcare. They all have healthcare divisions. They are all going into this field. I would say, in principle, that can be complementary. Those IT companies have a lot of capabilities around digitizing and analyzing data. Also, in analyzing big data, they have the tools, the algorithms, etc. But what they miss is the medical knowledge, the understanding of biology. They can't ask the right questions. They can program but they don't know what to program. This is where I think this comes together. We will probably see more partnerships in the future. We are very open to those partnerships and we did one strategic collaboration with a company called Foundation Medicines, which is really an information company, they deal with data, and we have collaborated with them. We will probably see more of that in the future.

Q: There have been rumors that Roche might be trying to acquire all the shares in Japan's Chugai Pharmaceutical.

A: At the time, we said we don't want to comment on anything because we never comment. The reason we don't comment is because the moment we start to comment every day, if you then don't comment anymore, they will say, "Now they have changed their mind." See what I mean? It's a matter of principal that we don't comment, but don't read anything into it; we just don't comment.

     What I can say [is we have been getting this question] since 2009. The reason is because we bought [a minority interest] at the time. What people completely overlooked was the following: In Genentech [a biotechnology company], we had two different organizations in the U.S. and we couldn't bring them together. Then we bought out the minority shareholders, and then we could fully integrate our U.S. operations, which we did as a consequence.

     That's very different from Chugai. When we entered the alliance with Chugai, the whole Roche was already brought to Chugai. There is only one company in Japan, and it's doing very well.

     I am satisfied with the cooperation; its doing very well. They have a good position in the market, they are productive in R&D. I'm proud of Chugai.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Takayuki Kato

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