Pharma companies have been eying digital health with interest, and the first quarter of 2018 was no exception. With the exception of some medication adherence-focused technologies — such as an edible QR code intended to assist with medication dosing — news tended to center around digitally-enabled clinical trials, rollouts or pilots of pharma-focused digital tools, and major deals or collaborations. Read on for a roundup of the quarter’s notable events.
It’s becoming more and more clear that pharma companies are continuing to investigate digital technologies as a means to streamline their novel drug investigations. In its February earnings call, for instance, clinical trial technology company Medidata boasted full-year 2017 total revenue growth and similar projections for the coming year. Further, company executives revealed that Medidata’s virtual trial platform, Engage, will now be offered as part of its Clinical Cloud product, and that a virtual trial powered by the company’s technology and recruiting an estimated 15,000 or more participants is now underway.
“I want to emphasize the degree to which we are in the business of virtual trials,” Glen Michael de Vries, president and cofounder of Medidata, said during the call. “To put it simply, our experience with trials run outside of the clinic is as unrivaled as our experience in traditional in-clinic research. It was our team who ran the first fully virtual trial under an IND with Pfizer in 2011. It included the first remote consenting in the industry, and it included the first time drugs were ever shipped to patients at home. And since then, we've done more virtual trials than any other clinical tech vendor.”
Digitally-enabled clinical trials can offer number of advantages, chief among them improved patient enrollment. Last month, for instance, results from a Mayo Clinic study showed an 80 percent increase in breast cancer trial enrollment attributable to IBM’s Watson for Clinical Trial matching system. This study also showed that the technology could significantly reduce the time it takes to screen an individual patient for clinical trial matches.
New trial announcements from the past few months also suggest that pharmas are onboard with including digital tech in their trials. Merck, for instance, announced just a few weeks ago that it would be sponsoring a study in which participants’ sleeping habits would be tracked and quantified using Fitbit Charge 2 wearables. Another, backed by Sanofi, is tapping TriNetX to incorporate patient EHRs to assist with design, recruitment, and investigator workflow streamlining.
The FDA is now using mobile phones to help folks see drug and pharma information. In March the FDA launched the free mobile app version of its Drugs@FDA online database that offers consumers information on agency-approved drugs. The new app, called Drugs@FDA Express, is free and currently available for download on iOS and Android.
“The FDA is continuously seeking ways to bring information to consumers in more accessible formats,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. “Today, with the launch of the Drugs@FDA Express mobile app, we’re bringing the public important information about drugs in an easy-to-use, mobile format. We hope that by making this important health information more easily accessible we can help empower patients and providers in making their treatment decisions.”
The agency’s new app allows users to browse approved brand and generic prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs, as well as biological therapeutic products. After searching for a particular therapy by name, active ingredient, or application number, users can view submitted patient information, labeling, approval letters, reviews, and much of the other data held on-file by the agency.
Also in the medication information sphere, Takeda is supporting Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's launch of IBD&Me, an app to help people with Irritable Bowel Disease select the right drug. The app is unbranded, so it won't give preference to Takeda's drugs. It applies the marketing concept of conjoint analysis to healthcare by giving patients a series of two-option choices.
On a similar patient education note, San Francisco-based MyHealthTeams has added its 28th disease-specific social network, and is working with Belgian pharmaceutical company UCB on an educational initiative related to the platform.
MySpondylitisTeam, the newest network, is aimed at patients with spondyloarthritis, a kind of arthritis which, unlike rheumatoid arthritis, tends to first present itself when patients are in their 20s and 30s. Spondyloarthritis encompasses several kinds of chronic and inflammatory arthritis that affect the spine, the pelvis, the joints, and the entheses, causing joint stiffness and pain.
On the flip side, new technologies are also giving more information to pharma companies. In March, Precision Health AI, a company that specializes in applications of AI to oncology, launched a new platform, called Eureka Health Oncology, that uses EMR data to provide practical AI applications for real oncology use cases.
The technology uses mass amounts of EMR data to give insight to pharmaceutical companies and physicians about certain conditions. The platform is designed to help researchers and clinicians design targeted therapies, shape clinical trials, and determine what therapies offer the greatest patient benefits.
One of the biggest deals this quarter was between digital therapeutics company Pear Therapeutics and pharma company Novartis. In March Pear Therapeutics has inked a deal with pharma giant to work together on the development of two digital therapeutics for multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia. It’s the first time a pharma company has made a development deal with a digital therapeutic, according to Pear.
One therapeutic included in the deal, Pear’s Thrive for schizophrenia, has been under development for a while and has already been validated in three clinical trials comprising of more than a thousand patients. The other, a therapeutic designed to address the mental health conditions that come along with multiple sclerosis, will be a new application developed in partnership with Novartis.
There might be more deals on the way. Alex Waldron, Pear’s chief commercial officer, told MobiHealthNews that Pear Therapeutics is currently looking for a partner to market reSET and reSET-O, its addiction-focused therapeutics that are on the market right now. He sees the future of the company in mental health rather than addiction, with therapeutics similar to the ones involved in the Novartis deal.
That wasn’t the only deal between a digital health company and a pharma company this quarter. Bensheim, Germany-based drug delivery system manufacturer Sanner GmbH and London, UK-based Amiko — a startup that has leveraged smart sensors and artificial intelligence to develop its connected inhaler and app suite Respiro — are looking to integrate novel technologies into medication packaging to better address the challenges of medication adherence.
Following an unspecified investment in the startup by parent company Sanner Ventures, which was announced in January, the pharmaceuticals-focused company said today in a statement that it is specifically interested in leveraging Amiko’s proprietary sensor technology into its own products. By including the sensors within custom-designed drug packaging and delivery products, either as an add-on or as a full integration, the two companies hope to offer pharmaceutical firms a new approach to measuring and ensuring medication compliance for respiratory or other chronic diseases.
This quarter has also seen some pharma-related mergers and acquisitions. In mid-March Platinum Equity, a Los Angeles-based global investment firm focused on mergers, acquisitions, and operations, made a binding offer to acquire Johnson & Johnsons' Chesterbrook, Pennsylvania and Zug, Switzerland-based LifeScan business, which sells the OneTouch line of connected and non-connected glucometers. Platinum Equity will pay $2.1 billion for the business, which reported $1.5 billion in net revenue last year.
Assuming the offer is accepted, the transaction is expected to close by the end of the year. LifeScan President Valerie Asbury would continue to lead the business, as Platinum Equity plans to make the transition as seamless as possible for customers.
In other acquisition news, pharma giant Roche agreed to acquire oncology EHR software firm Flatiron Health in the first half of 2018. Roche will pay an additional $1.9 billion over the millions it had already invested into the company in 2016, and as a result of the deal will control all shares of Flatiron Health.