Partnerships Help Drugmakers Get Closer To Patients

Proteus Biomedical has developed chip-in-a-pill technology that transmits patient data directly to a smartphone. Novartis has partnered with Proteus to investigate applications of this technology. C&EN senior editor Rick Mullin discusses how the nontraditional partnership is part of a larger trend.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Strange bedfellows, they're everywhere in the drug-development business these days. For example, there's a biotech firm and a drug partner - and a drugmaker that have partnered to develop a chip in a pill that after you swallow it, it transmits information about your body to a smartphone, which relays it to your doctor.

How about a patient efficacy group that has teamed up with a pharma company to develop therapies for a genetic disease? Could these nontraditional partners be part of a larger trend? Could these pairs - pairings be a shot in the arm for a drug company?

Our next guest has written about these odd couplings. Rick Mullin is a senior editor of Chemical & Engineering News. He joins me in our New York studio. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RICK MULLIN: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Give me some idea of some of the strange pairings that are going on. What - let's talk about this pill that you swallow - and what happens?

MULLIN: That might be the strangest, yes. You know, you called it a chip in a pill. Actually, it's almost more barbaric. It's a chip on a pill. It's sort of glued on. But it is a - it's an innovative idea that this biotech company in California called Proteus has come up with, and it's approved by the EMA, the drug authorities in Europe, to attach a digital transmitting device made of food materials, as most you can get from them.

It's biodegradable, made from things in your diet, that is activated by acids in your stomach to send out a very super-low-power, digital signal that's picked up by a patch that's worn on your arm, that might look like a nicotine patch. They say it could also be picked up by a device that you would put under your skin, I guess if you were really committed to this regimen.

And from that device, it sends a signal to an app for your iPhone. From there, you've got the Internet. You can send the information to your doctor, to caregivers at home.

FLATOW: You could put it on Facebook if you want.

MULLIN: I guess you could. I guess you could, and what it does is transmits information having to do with the pill that it's on. It gives you basic information like what time you took it, who manufactured it and I think even where, you know, what the drug is, but also things having to do with your body pertaining to the pill.

If it's a statin, it might have something about cholesterol. But it's probably something more like blood pressure and just the metabolism of the pill itself.

FLATOW: And so this is a trend, then, mixing the high-tech with high-pharma?

MULLIN: Yes. There's a number of things going on. That is one of the ones that really stands out. And it's interesting in that the work - I mean, one of the things that seems to sort of legitimize this is that on - Novartis, which is a major drug company, is one of the first partners. So it's not out-there kind of, you know, technology that the big pharma, you know, the establishment is ignoring.

They're very much interested in working with companies like this to figure out what to do - because what they want to do is get information about how their drugs are working, which is something, perhaps astonishingly, they've spent very little time paying attention to - or not enough time paying attention to - because of the way drugs have been developed and marketed.

And there are things going on right now that are going to require them to know a lot more about how their products are working after the clinic, in the real world.

FLATOW: Well, when you say things going on right now, what do you mean by that?

MULLIN: With changes in health care, for example, to introduce a new drug, the bar is much higher. You have to now show in much more detail than you did before what's already out there, and how what you're doing is going to be an improvement.

It used to be that innovation was pretty much paid for - the payers, the insurance companies, you know, basically paid for new drugs. Now, they want data that drug companies need to really get - about, you know, what's out there, how it's working, how theirs is different and an improvement.

FLATOW: Is this tied into personalized medicine at all?

MULLIN: Very much so. That's another big trend, personalized medicine being, you know, the development of a drug that is catered to the patient - which is counter to, you know, broadly speaking, the blockbuster drug business model, which most people are familiar with from the 1990s, where drug companies spent most of their time really focused on billion-dollar-selling drugs that served enormous populations.

Personalized medicine is a matter of - and there are some examples of it now, such as - there's a breast cancer drug, the name of which I've just completely blacked out on, that is...

FLATOW: That's all right, it happens to me all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MULLIN: Herceptin. That is an example of personalized medicine. You can see which patients would respond and which wouldn't. So it's really a matter of finding that out and catering to that. It's a smaller market, therefore.

FLATOW: Is it a question of the drug industry so far behind all the other technologies that are out there now or catching up?

MULLIN: Well, certainly in the technology of discovering drugs, they're on the cutting edge, and they're more and more involved with partners that are also on the cutting edge in biotech. But there's a lot of business practices that they're behind other industries on, and the use of computers, the use of computers in the laboratory that they seem to lag on, because they're - this was an industry that was making an awful lot of money - still making a lot - but the cost of bringing a drug to market makes things a little bit different for them.

But they have had a hard time replacing the blockbusters that have come off patent, and...

FLATOW: So they're taking a new route now.

MULLIN: They're...

FLATOW: Many more, but smaller ones.

MULLIN: Yes, generally. Basically, they're going through an efficiency regime in their business, and in the science they are gearing toward personalized medicine and a health-care landscape that's going to be filled with types of companies that we've never seen, such as the chip on the pill.

FLATOW: And we should expect to see more examples of these coming out, and maybe showing up where we might not expect to see them, like at the Consumer Electronics Show versus at a pharma kind of exhibition?

MULLIN: No doubt it's already happening, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Did you go? Did you see anything there?

MULLIN: Well, I did not go to the Consumer Electronics Show, although I might have to now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MULLIN: But you are seeing - you know, you're seeing a lot more innovative partnerships with pairs, with device companies. There are a lot of cellphone applications being developed. There is one for blood-glucose monitoring; there's another that I've seen for an EKG - which is a startup company - where you put the cellphone up to your chest, get your EKG, and it goes up to the cloud, cloud computing - and your doctor gets it from there.

FLATOW: You had an example of a partnership with a patient advocacy group.

MULLIN: That's interesting.

FLATOW: How - what's in it for both groups in that?

MULLIN: That was a partnership between PTC Therapeutics, Roche and the SMA Group. And this is for a very rare disease. The group knocked on the door at PTC and said: We see your technology, and we think it would be good for our patients.

FLATOW: What kind of diseases was that?

MULLIN: SMA. Again, I'm - without the article in front of me, I'm blacking out on that. It's a rare disease. This is a technology, though, that's been used in muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and they were very interested in this as well. And they were very happy to get a patient group that has a lot of information about patients, knocking on their door and encouraging them to work on it - and giving them money.

They got it to the point where they had a pre-clinical candidate. They went and got a partner in Roche and stayed with them. So it's a tripartite, you know, group now working on it. And when you speak with Roche, they're very happy to have the patient advocacy group because they're looking beyond to clinical trials, to information about patients that this group has, that they haven't really had access to before.

FLATOW: Well, with all this information, is there not any worry about what happens, the privacy issues of all this information?

MULLIN: Yeah, that's a big issue. There are things going on in heath care to protect the patient. It's going to be something they're going to have to watch very closely. But certainly, patient advocacy groups are very interested in getting information to the drug companies and to the drug developers, to work on therapies in these areas.

FLATOW: Now, do you think - let's go back to that smart-pill idea. Do you think that people are going to want to swallow a computer chip attached...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MULLIN: That's a wonderful question. I don't know if - you know, it's funny, though, because what is in the pills that we're swallowing already, right? All of a sudden, we're fussy about, you know, the pills that we swallow. It's something that's supposed to be - or that is biodegradable, we'll take them at their word for that. It's actually made of food products.

Yeah, there's going to be resistance. There'll be resistance.

FLATOW: I have somebody on the line here who says he's done it. Adam(ph) in Raleigh, are you there? Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ADAM: Hi there.

FLATOW: Have you taken one of these pills?

ADAM: I have not taken the pill with the chip on it; however, I have swallowed a pill that has a camera inside it. And it was the only way to be able to scope the small intestine. So they can scope your throat, and they can do colonoscopies, but to see way down in your digestive system, it's the only way they have to see it.

FLATOW: Rick, you know about that?

MULLIN: Right. Yes.

ADAM: So what it does is, it goes through you, and it sends little - takes two pictures a second, and it sends it to a little hard drive that you wear for the day. And then when the camera goes out, you just, you know, you just flush it. You don't bring it back or anything. And then the doctor reviews the pictures to see what's inside you.

FLATOW: Rick?

MULLIN: Yes. I mean, a diagnostic such as that - a tool such as that is already being used. It's very similar to this. Of course, it was prefigured in "The Jetsons" with the Peek-a-boo Probe, for those of us who remember. But this idea of swallowing something that goes through your body, looks at what's going on, is already being used.

What's different with the Proteus product is that it's actually tracking the efficacy of the drug within the body, the metabolism of the drug in the body. It's very interesting because it's an admission on the drugmakers' part that they need to get more information out to patients, and also, you know, there hasn't been a real good way of finding out how their drugs are actually working in individual patients.

And companies like Novaris are very interested in seeing what this technology will do to help them there.

FLATOW: And it's also crowd-sourcing for the first time. You may have one little camera, but now it can go to everybody because it gets transmitted from your iPhone or something like that. You could crowd-source all this information.

MULLIN: I'm not sure how it works once it gets to your iPhone. I'd imagine

FLATOW: I'm not talking about the camera itself but this whole...

MULLIN: No. Right, the...

FLATOW: The whole - this whole new era of stuff.

MULLIN: Right, the information. Once it's out there with the Internet, yeah, I mean, privacy is definitely one of the things that people are going to want around. Yes, swallowing a pill with a little chip that you actually see on it is going to meet with some resistance, no doubt.

FLATOW: All right, Rick, thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

MULLIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Rick Mullin is editor - senior editor of Chemical & Engineering News. We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to talk with climatologist Michael Mann, author of a new book "The Hockey Stick And The Climate Wars." He is the guy who helped design and formulate that hockey stick. And we'll talk about slings and arrows he has suffered through, and he's fighting back, and he'll be our guest here. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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