Recap: Digital health pharma news from Q2 2016

By Jonah Comstock
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There was a time when a quarter's worth of pharma news in digital health would have meant news from a small handful of players. But this quarter, news has come from lots of different companies, demonstrating that adoption of digital health in the pharma world has breadth, even if we're still looking for depth. Read on for the quarter's biggest pharma partnerships, app launches, connected device integrations, and more.

One of the longest-running and most ambitious developing stories in the world of digital therapeutics, of course, is Proteus Digital Health's ingestible sensor system. Last year Proteus announced with partner Otsuka Pharmaceuticals that it would begin to market a version of Abilify with its ingestible sensor built in. Unfortunately, that project hit a bit of a setback this quarter when the FDA declined to approve the companies' New Drug Application (NDA). Because both halves of the system are already cleared or approved by the FDA, the companies expected a swift approval. Instead, they were issued a Complete Response Letter (CRL), a non-public document issued by the FDA that lays out the additional steps a non-approved drug must take to secure approval. The FDA asked for "data regarding the performance of the product under the conditions in which it is likely to be used, and further human factors investigations." 

Another developing trend we've looked at in pharma is the proliferation of smartphone-connected inhalers being paired with drugs for asthma and COPD. In May, Chippenham, UK-based Vectura Group, an independent pharma company focused exclusively on inhaler drugs for respiratory conditions, became the latest pharma company to work with Madison, Wisconsin-based Propeller Health. Propeller will work with Vectura to develop an add-on sensor for Vectura’s lever-operated multi-dose inhaler (LOMI), a disc-shaped dry powder inhaler (DPI). Once that device is released, the companies may tackle connected strategies for other Vectura devices.

In April, Pfizer partnered with IBM to develop a system that clinicians can use to treat patients who have Parkinson’s disease. The system will make use of sensors, mobile devices, and machine learning to provide clinicians and researchers with symptom information, which they will then use to better understand patient disease progression and medication response. It will also help inform treatment decisions, clinical trial design, and new treatments. IBM and Pfizer plan to soon start initial clinical testing for the system.

Bausch + Lomb, a subsidiary of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, also partnered with IBM. Through its enterprise partnership with Apple, IBM will create a clinical calculation app for cataract surgeons for Bausch + Lomb. At first the app will serve to integrate all the calculation data, patient data, and records of previous surgeries to generally make cataract surgeons’ work more efficient. But the app is being designed in such a way as to incorporate IBM’s cognitive computing capabilities in the future. 

Roche Diabetes Care and Roche Diagnostics, both offshoots of Swiss pharma company F. Hoffmann-La Roche, each made a foray into connected health devices this quarter. Roche Diabetes Care partnered with app company mySugr, in which it had previously invested. Users that own Roche’s Accu-Chek Connect meter will now be able to automatically sync blood glucose data to mySugr. These users will also have access to the pro version of the mySugr app. This integrated offering will be available first in Germany and Austria, but will eventually launch in the US and other markets, according to the company. And Roche Diagnostics launched a Bluetooth-connected device for testing blood coagulation, the CoaguChek INRange system, in Europe. An older version of the device without the Bluetooth connectivity is already available in the US and in Europe.

A couple of pharma companies launched apps during the quarter. Global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca launched a new patient-facing mobile app that includes a virtual savings card, a prescription tracker, and educational materials. The app, available in the US on the iOS App Store and Google Play store, is called AZhelps. 

Novartis supported ExcoInTouch in launching Target My Hives, a disease-specific social network app for people with chronic urticaria. In the app, users can enter information like their level of control over their hives or what triggers them and be matched anonymously with patients with similar symptoms. They can then share updates and offer support on a Facebook-like platform. Patients with similar symptoms can swap tips for living with hives, dealing with flare-ups, etc.

Digital pharma was a topic of discussion at several events this quarter as well. At BIO 2016, the relationship between digital therapeutics and reimbursement was discussed. At the MobiHealthNews event the following week, Boehringer Ingelheim's Larry Brooks discussed the evolution of BI's digital health efforts.

On the retail pharmacy side, the quarter saw CVS Health invest in and partner with Curbside, an app that lets customers order from retailers by smartphone and pick up the bags from outside the store. So far, however, CVS customers can't use Curbside for prescriptions. Competitor Walgreens once again expanded its partnership with video visits company MDLive, adding behavioral health visits from Breakthrough Behavioral, which was acquired by MDLive in 2014.