LeeAnn Talarico manages a team of researchers who investigate new cancer treatments at SQZ Biotechnologies in Watertown. Until recently, obtaining the blood samples her lab needs to run experiments was a clumsy process that took place largely offline — a strikingly anachronistic method for an industry built on advanced technology.
Talarico would call hospitals and bio-repositories, asking for blood drawn from patients with the particular type of cancer she needed for a specific study. If they didn’t have any, she’d leave a message asking if they could call back if a patient donated some.
Even if they did have the type of blood she was looking for, getting her hands on a sample could still be complicated, and take a long time.
“You need to find the specific clinician who has the resources and fill out all kinds of paperwork,” she said. “Those things can take many months to get going.”
But an online marketplace called iSpecimen, which debuted about two months ago in Lexington, has alleviated that ordeal for researchers.
On iSpecimen, customers like Talarico can browse through samples ranging from frozen bladder tumors to the blood she needed, listed for sale by various institutions and catalogued by the age, sex, and diagnosis of the donor.
Potential purchases can be moved to a checkout cart, as on Amazon.com, and products are shipped directly to buyers or sent via iSpecimen’s headquarters for repackaging.
More than 50 hospital systems and commercial laboratory networks in Massachusetts and elsewhere have signed deals with iSpecimen, giving researchers access to millions of tissue and fluid specimens. That could greatly expand the power of labs like SQZ to conduct cutting-edge research, Talarico said.
“It makes it easier for the scientists to determine the availability of different types of samples,” she said.
Startups like iSpecimen are beginning to bring the slick online technology of the so-called sharing economy to the heavily regulated world of health care and pharmaceutical research.
There’s Iggbo, a Lyft-like service in North Carolina that sends phlebotomists to patients’ homes on behalf of hospitals.
In Boston, a company called Circulation is working with Uber and Boston Children’s Hospital to provide non-emergency medical transportation services.
Most prominent among these would-be med-tech disruptors might be Science Exchange, a Palo Alto, Calif., platform scientists can use to outsource research to independent labs that The Economist called an “Uber for experiments.” It has attracted tens of millions of dollars in funding from Silicon Valley luminaries, including Y Combinator and Andreessen Horowitz.
Science Exchange founder Elizabeth Iorns says the rise of startups like hers and iSpecimen represents a sea change that could make medical research more nimble and effective.
“What you’re seeing is the shift to an outsource model where people are starting to look for expertise and resources that are available externally,” Iorns said. “That’s what modern science is evolving to: how do you utilize everything that’s available in the ecosystem without any of the bureaucracy and logistics involved in those systems?”
It can be a difficult space to navigate. Medical research and care are tightly regulated, and the sheer amount of raw information involved can be overwhelming. Developers at iSpecimen struggled for years to build a system that could make sense of all the legal requirements and the data formats its potential merchants might use.
Building a network of hospitals and bio-repositories willing to use the system posed a separate challenge, said iSpecimen founder and chief executive Christopher Ianelli, who was inspired to start the venture in 2009 by an internal database used to track the specimen library at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he completed his medical residency.
“It was a brute-force effort,” Ianelli said of his overtures with hospital staff, which kept him on the road for years. “These were all face-to-face meetings.”
During his presentations to potential partners, Ianelli would point to the trash can and tell hospital administrators that the many biospecimens they discarded every year could be used by researchers to develop treatments — and as a new revenue stream from labs like SQZ, which are willing to pay for access to the samples they need.
“We certainly don’t want a museum of specimens,” said Amer Abouhamze, assistant director of the CTSI Biorepository at the University of Florida, which is now a seller on iSpecimen. “There’s no point in having thousands and thousands of specimens that are just sitting in a freezer. The whole point is to use these in research.”
But the “move fast and break things” ethos of tech innovation doesn’t always mesh with the methodical world of biological science.
Theranos, another Palo Alto startup that claimed to have developed a revolutionary blood test that could diagnose diseases using just a drop of blood, signed a high-profile deal with the pharmacy chain Walgreens in 2013 and attracted hundreds of millions in funding.
But the budding empire came crashing down after a Wall Street Journal investigation found little evidence the company’s key blood-testing technology was more than a marketing concept.
Theranos laid off much of its workforce, and founder Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout who during sunnier times often drew comparisons to Apple founder Steve Jobs, was forbidden by federal regulators from running a laboratory.Jon Christian can be reached at jonathan.a.christian