Devices and diagnostics become more integral to the biopharma biz

Whether it's through research partnerships, drug delivery devices, apps for clinical trials or companion diagnostics, med tech is playing a greater role in the pharma business, and there's no reason to believe this trend won't accelerate in 2016.

Most notably, Japanese pharma company Otsuka recently submitted an application to the FDA for approval of an ingestible drug adherence device in partnership with Proteus Digital Health, whose technology earned the first FDA-approved indication specifically for measuring medication adherence. Otsuka hopes to embed the sensor into its Abilify med for severe mental illnesses including schizophrenia, allowing patients, physicians and caregivers to monitor how an individual takes the drug 

Another example is Verily's (formerly Google Life Sciences) partnership with Novartis ($NVS) on the development of a "smart" contact lens. The company plans to test a first prototype of the product, a smart lens for vision correction in people with presbyopia, or age-related farsightedness, on humans in 2016. They are also working on a smart lens for monitoring diabetes by measuring glucose in tears.

Meanwhile, Fierce 15 company Propeller Health recently announced a development agreement with the GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) under which Propeller will create a custom sensor for the Big Pharma's Ellipta inhaler. Smart inhaler competitor CoheroHealth just closed a $2 million seed round, and is looking partnerships of its own.

Also Israel's Teva ($TEVA) in September said it will acquire respiratory disease compliance startup Gecko Health Innovations for an undisclosed sum. The company also makes a sensor and associated app for monitoring patients' adherence to instructions about the proper use of COPD/asthma inhalers. 

The companies' sensors to monitor usage and increase adherence of inhalers are just one of several drug delivery devices being deployed to gain a competitive edge. Some of the advances are more incremental in nature, like Amgen's ($AMGN) launch of a delivery device for automatic administration of its blockbuster Neulasta. But lots of small moves like that add up. They help drug companies differentiate their medicines and extend their lifespan when patents expire.

Another device being leveraged by the pharma companies is the smartphone. This year Roche ($RHHBY) said it will use an internally developed smartphone app to monitor the progress of patients during a Phase I clinical trial of its Parkinson's candidate. And Qualcomm announced that Novartis will use its cloud-based Life2net data-sharing platform in clinical trials to automate the collection of patient data from medical devices at patients' homes.

Indeed, drug clinical trials are an arena ripe for more contributions from the device world. Biogen ($BIIB) CEO George Scangos is already on the record saying wearable devices are going to "transform the way we do clinical trials." The company's Executive Vice President of Technology, Adriana Karaboutis, thinks ​measurements​ from a wearable device could replace the 25-minute walk tests in trials of multiple sclerosis meds, a therapeutic area that the company knows a lot about thanks to its blockbuster medicine, Tecfidera.

Lastly, providers of diagnostics will benefit from the continued push toward personalized (or "precision") medicine. After all, diagnostics are the cornerstone of the treatment paradigm, which involves selecting the optimal therapeutic based on a patient's individual disease and genome or other unique personal characteristics. The demand for companion diagnostics to enable patient selection of personalized medicines will remain high.

Beyond the utilization of devices by pharma companies lie research areas like tissue engineering, which blur the line between drugs and devices, and pose a challenge to the many differences between the two industries' business models. -- Varun Saxena (email | Twitter)

For more:
Proteus and Otsuka head to FDA with drug adherence combo device
Proteus gains first FDA clearance specifically for measuring medication adherence
In latest biopharma-med tech pairing, Teva snaps up respiratory compliance tracker Gecko
Philips and Teva unveil new med tech incubator in Israel
Biogen VP Karaboutis rallies company for med tech R&D push
Biogen CEO says the biotech aims to develop wearable and ingestible devices
Novartis and Google team up to develop smart contact lenses
Novartis, Google shoot to have smart contact lenses in clinic in 2016
GSK, Propeller Health partner to study smart inhalers for asthma, COPD drugs
Roche deploying smartphone app to monitor patients during clinical trial of its Parkinson's med

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