International pharma giant Novartis announced this morning the acquisition of Amblyotech, a startup that combines 3D glasses and video game software to treat amblyopia, more commonly known as "lazy eye." The terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Novartis also said that it will be developing new games and kicking off a proof-of-concept study alongside major French video game publisher Ubisoft and McGill University later this year.
Amblyotech's approach employs dichoptic display, an approach where each eye is presented with a different algorithm-driven image through the 3D glasses that the brain works to interpret and correct. To encourage users to engage with the therapy so that the brain can retrain itself over time, Amblyotech delivers those images as part of a video game built for the platform.
One such game was Dig Rush, which Ubisoft designed half a decade ago to incorporate red and blue characters or objects – one for each eye via 3D glasses.
In its announcement, Novartis highlighted a 2016 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology exploring the technology among a sample of 28 children with amblyopia, In it, researchers found an iPad-based version of the platform to improve best-corrected visual acuity compared to standard treatment at two weeks.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT?
Amblyopia affects roughly 3% of the global population, according to a 2014 study, and is a major driver of vision loss among children. And although it can be caught and corrected among children, there is no approved therapy for adults.
“By offering a noninvasive solution that has the potential to be significantly faster than current standards of care such as patching for children and adults impacted by lazy eye, Amblyotech’s software is a great example of how we can reimagine medicine using digital technology,” Nikos Tripodis, global business franchise head for ophthalmology at Novartis, said in a statement. “We look forward to using our deep clinical development expertise in ophthalmology to accelerate this platform toward regulatory approval, and our global commercial footprint to maximize access for patients who need it.”
With video game design practices increasingly finding their place among digital health and digital therapeutics products, it's also noteworthy that this acquisition also builds a bridge between Novartis and one of the world's largest video game companies. The upcoming proof-of-concept study builds upon Ubisoft's prior work with Amblyotech, but it isn't hard to imagine a scenario where the pharma could benefit from the publisher's digital-design expertise.
THE LARGER TREND
This acquisition is the latest example of a traditional pharma showing interest in a digital therapeutic platform. But this purchase of a smaller digital therapeutics startup is particularly noteworthy when considering the recent history of the buyer.
Novartis made a name for itself as one of the first major pharmas to target prescription digital therapeutics by inking deals with Pear Therapeutics in early 2018. And although the company is still maintaining its R&D agreements with Pear, its Sandoz division cut ties with the digital therapeutics company last fall when it axed the partners' high-profile commercialization agreement of reSET and reSET-O.
This new acquisition, alongside another commercialization deal with Biofourmis announced in November, is evidence that Novartis is still keeping an eye on how digital therapeutics could benefit is broader business.
Amblyotech's digital platform is unique in its goal to directly treat amblyopia, but there are others in the space already using technology to catch the condition before it fully develops. GoCheck, for instance, raised a $6 million Series B for its smartphone app screener just last year.