Thursday, January 29, 2015

MUST SEE CES: 4 Can’t-Miss Takeaways for Pharma

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By: Bill Drummy, Founder & CEO, Heartbeat Ideas & Heartbeat West

The Digital Health Summit at this year’s CES was comprised of two days of back-to-back sessions, some twelve sessions in all, with topics ranging from “Consumer Accessible Innovation” to “Reinventing the Doctor-Patient Relationship.”  

While I did not attend every session (there was the adjoining oceanic trade floor to circumnavigate, after all) here are my top take-aways from a pharma perspective:

Novartis and the Innovation Imperative

The formidable Corinne Savill, Novartis’ Head of Business Development and Licensing, spoke about a new way to use social media in pharma -- social for a larger purpose.  Interviewed by Rick Valencia (@bootstrapped) from Qualcomm Life (@qualcommlife), Savill declared how “vitally important it is for Novartis to be able to demonstrate the value of their medicines.”   Towards that end, Savill spoke of the role social media initiatives like “Set Your Sights” (a content-rich, non-branded initiative focused on vision health) can play as “a platform for patient engagement.” 

“We want to maximize the ability for patients to give input thru social media” by means of de-personalized, anonymous, pooled data.  So it’s not just about providing unbranded patient education in a relevant therapeutic category (although “Set Your Sights” does that very well); it’s also about gathering human insights and leanings in a way that respects patient privacy.  “We must understand the core motivation of our patient,” she said.

Coincidentally (or maybe not?), at the same time CES was going on, Novartis and Qualcomm Life announced a $100 million fund to invest in “technologies, products or services that ‘go beyond the pill’ to benefit physicians and patients.”

Sensing an Opportunity: UCB’s Neupro and Biosensors

Dr. James Zackheim is Vice President – Patient Solutions for Neupro®, UCB’s treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and Restless Leg Syndrome, (disclosure:  my agency, Heartbeat Ideas, works on a competing brand, XenoPort’s Horizant, which also has an indication for RLS) presented along with Rav Sheth from MC10, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company with a goal to “to redefine the interface between electronics and the human body.” 

UCB and MC10 are working on sensor technology to “connect data coming from a wearable patch to outcomes,” according to Dr. Zackheim.  So this is another example of the burgeoning partnerships developing between pharma and tech companies (there are now quite a few, including those announced by Novartis, Otsuka, and Abbvie, to mention just the most publicized examples).  On this theme, Dr. Zackheim made one of my favorite comments of the conference, “Regarding these partnerships, with pharma, the mind is willing but the flesh is weak.” 

Sheth underscored the degree of disruptive novelty inherent in pharma working with such fast-changing technologies:  “What we are showing today is not what UCB saw six to nine months ago; that version was two generations less developed.”

John Nosta (@johnnosta), my fellow Google Health Advisory Board member, moderated the UCB panel, and made an indelible point about their new patch, while apparently holding it up to the audience. “Can’t see the patch?  Good.  That’s the point. The point is that the patch disappears.”

Nearly invisible, yet hardly impassive, as data from the patch can potentially help UCB improve efficacy, learn about optimal dosing, monitor compliance and ultimately, help establish whether the therapy is improving outcomes.

Neurotrack and Early Alzheimer’s Detection

Do you see a theme emerging here?  Yes, it’s using technology to improve outcomes.  (Although I absolutely refuse to ever again say “Beyond the Pill.”  Never ever.) But there was another, less obvious but perhaps even more significant trend brought to life in two other presentations.

Isabel Hoffman (@isabelhoffmann) is a Serial Entrepreneur and the Founder and CEO of TellSpec, (@tellspec) a company creating a pioneering technology to allow people to really know what they are eating (and what may be making them obese, diabetic, toxic, or ill in a myriad of other ways).  

TellSpec (which is an attractive company in need of a tastier name) uses spectroscopy to analyze any kind of foodstuff and tell the ‘consumer’ what it really contains on a molecular level, and whether it is in fact good for you to eat.  The handheld TellSpec device shines a laser on the food and then examines the photons bouncing back to analyze the ingredients; algorithms then compare the food to knowledge in a quickly growing food database. In seconds, you can know what’s really in your food, including allergens, toxins and carcinogens.

“Wow” I tweeted. Assuming this technology proves reliable, TellSpec will be taking food tracking up a quantum level (almost literally). And empowering people to make wiser decisions to prevent disease from occurring in the first place.

The second highly memorable predictive technology I encountered was presented by another impressive woman entrepreneur: Elli Kaplan, co-founder and CEO of Neurotrack (@neurotrack).  Taking advantage of three decades of research at Emory University, the company has developed a novel approach for the early identification of Alzheimer’s Disease. 

The ugly truth about this horrifying condition is that the overwhelming majority of drugs that have been developed to fight it have failed.  A big reason for the almost complete lack of success is that scientists have typically tested compounds on patients whose disease was already very far advanced.  But Alzheimer’s starts developing 20-30 years before symptoms become obvious.  So how do we find earlier stage patients so that we can start to better understand the disease and develop better treatments?  (And also identify patients early enough for interventional treatment to do some good.)

Neurotrack has developed technology that they claim enables earlier-onset patients to be more easily identified (assuming they can find enough brave people to get tested before they have symptoms in order to find out if they might have a —so far— incurable disease.)  This is how the early detection works:  Neurotrack uses eye scanning technology to track the brain’s response to images; when presented with two images – one novel, the other familiar — a normal human brain will respond with greater attention to the novel image; but in early-onset Alzheimer’s, the person shows no preference for the novel image (it’s as if she sees both images as ‘new’).  Kaplan said their technology had a very high accuracy rate in predicting who would develop Alzheimer’s.

A crucial requirement for the success of Neurotrack’s approach, of course, is getting enough patients to participate, and ‘crowdsourcing’ the data so that scientists have a large enough pool of patients to use to gain insights about how the disease develops and what drugs might slow, halt or reverse its progression.

So with both Neurotrack and TellSpec we are seeing how technology can be used to predict and even prevent disease.

Too bad most people missed the news.

We’ll have more on the latest in pharma marketing at ePharma. Join us February 24-26 in New York, NY.
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