Healthcare startups should participate in peer-review, not 'stealth research,' researchers say

The lack of transparency practiced by healthcare startups should leave investors concerned about another Theranos-style scandal, according to a recent report reviewed by TechCrunch.

Researchers associated with the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (Calif.) University evaluated the highest-valued healthcare startups — those worth at least $1 billion — against their published scientific literature. One of the report's authors, John Ioannidis, MD, was one of the first people to identify issues with Theranos, namely that the startup participated in "stealth research."

"Many years ago I was the first person to say that Theranos had a problem," Dr. Ioannidis told TechCrunch. "The problem that I had then was that Theranos did not have any peer-reviewed evidence to show."

Most of the highest-valued healthcare startups have a similar issue today — meaning Theranos shouldn't be dismissed as "just one rotten apple," according to the report. The majority of these startups have published no highly cited studies, and — of the studies that have been published — nearly half are from just two startups: 23andMe and Adaptive Biotechnologies.

This lack of transparency into the inner-workings of startups' products is significant. The report provides the example of StemCentrx, an oncology treatment startup acquired by AbbVie for $10.2 billion. After the acquisition, the FDA delayed the rollout of one of its clinical trials because the treatment in question wasn't working, according to TechCrunch. Another startup, Intarcia, has had its device rejected by the FDA — despite being valuated at $5.5 billion

"Startups are key purveyors of innovation and disruption. Consequently, holding them to a minimal standard of evaluation from the scientific community is crucial," the report reads, according to TechCrunch. "Participation in peer review, with all its limitations, is the best way we have to uphold this standard."

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