Where big data meets biology.
This essay appears in today’s inaugural edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Healthy Daily newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox.
There is no more romantic notion of medical discovery, perhaps, than that of Alexander Fleming returning from vacation to his messy London laboratory in the summer of 1928. Fleming, as the story goes, noticed a mold-spotted Petri dish tucked in the corner of his workbench—a lucky observation that, through keen deduction and experiment, led the Scottish bacteriologist to find penicillin, the greatest wonder drug the world has ever known.
Penicillin changed the course of human history. Many would argue its advent marks the true start of 20thcentury medicine—the first “definitive moment of the modern therapeutic revolution,” as historian James Le Fanu has written. And yet, Fleming’s discovery wasn’t revolutionary in the least. In fact, in short order, it was all but forgotten.
Until a decade later, that is—when an Oxford pathologist named Howard Florey was rifling through back issues of The British Journal of Experimental Pathology and alit upon Fleming’s report. Florey and colleagues Ernst Chain, Norman Heatley, and others, purified the bacteria-killing chemical in Fleming’s mysterious mold, did their best to enrich it, and tested it on human patients. But the transformational moment didn’t arrive until 1941. That was when Florey and Heatley journeyed across the Atlantic to enlist several U.S. drug makers into figuring out how to make heaps of the stuff—which the companies succeeded in doing. That’s when the revolution happened.
In a matter of five years, amid the fury of a global war, writes Roswell Quinn, this diverse group went from “growing crude penicillin in bedpans and milk bottles to fermentation of highly refined penicillin in 10,000-gallon tanks. In this short time, a little-known, clinically insignificant, and unmanageable compound became a mass-produced miracle.”
Today, we are in the midst of another technology-driven—and dare we say, company-driven—transformation in medicine. Call it the digital health revolution—or heck, if we can be a little grandiose here, the moment when 21stcentury medicine begins. Near-simultaneous advances across an enormous spectrum of new tech—deep learning, big-data analytics, wearable sensors, hyperconnectivity, 3D printing, gene editing, virtual reality, and much more—are suddenly, and rapidly, shaking up a sector that now accounts for $3 trillion of spending every year in the U.S. That works out to nearly $10,000 per person.
Technology is changing virtually every aspect of the healthcare continuum—from how we detect and diagnose disease, to how and where we deliver care, to the notion of what it means to be well in the first place. It’s changing medical research, the way we calculate risk, and how we pay for healthcare. And some day—if this particular slice of the economy follows the pattern set by every other sector that has been disrupted by technology—all that care will cost less. Which is a good thing. (See the $10,000-a-year billing statement waiting for you at the cashier.)
Our mission with Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily is to chronicle this transformation. We’ll do our best to provide news, analysis, and hopefully, some insight about this ongoing upheaval and the pitchfork brigade of companies that are leading it. My colleague, Fortunewriter Sy Mukherjee, who was previously the editor of industry publication and newsletter BioPharma Dive, will do much of the reporting and sleuthing (see below). And each day, I’ll take a stab at framing one big idea or trend, or profiling one change agent or another. We’re counting on you—our expert readers—to offer us leads, suggestions, comments, and corrections, so please feel free to email.
In the meantime, welcome to the revolution.