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You may be familiar with Moore's Law, the prediction made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that computer chips would get faster and cheaper with each passing year. That's been borne out by the explosive growth of the tech industry, but you may not know that there is an inverse Moore's Law for drug development.
What if there were a way to apply the fast-moving, low-cost techniques of software development to drug discovery?
Eroom's Law—yes that's "Moore" spelled backward—is the observation that drug discovery has become slower and more expensive over time, despite technological improvements. And just like Moore's Law, it's been borne out by experience—from the 1950s to today, the number of drugs that can be developed per billion dollars in spending has steadily decreased, contributing to the continued growth of health care costs.
But what if there were a way to apply the fast-moving, low-cost techniques of software development to drug discovery? That's what a group of startups in the new field of digital therapeutics are promising. They develop apps that are used—either on their own or in conjunction with conventional drugs—to treat chronic disorders like addiction, diabetes and mental health that have so far resisted a pharmaceutical approach. Unlike the thousands of wellness and health apps that can be downloaded to your phone, digital therapeutics are developed and are meant to be used like drugs, complete with clinical trials, FDA approval and doctor prescriptions.
The field is hot—in 2017 global investment in digital therapeutics jumped to $11.5 billion, a fivefold increase from 2012, and major pharma companies like Novartis are developing their own digital products or partnering with startups. One such startup is the bicoastal Pear Therapeutics. Last month, Pear's reSET-O product became the first digital therapeutic to be approved for use by the millions of Americans who struggle with opioid use disorder, and the company has other products addressing addiction and mental illness in the pipeline.
I spoke with Dr. Corey McCann, Pear's CEO, about the company's efforts to meld software and medicine, designing clinical trials for an entirely new kind of treatment, and the future of digital therapeutics.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
"We're looking at conditions that currently can't be cured with drugs."
BRYAN WALSH: What makes a digital therapeutic different than a wellness app?
COREY MCCANN: What we do is develop therapeutics that are designed to be used under the auspices of a physician, just as a drug developed under good manufacturing would be. We do clinical studies for both safety and efficacy, and then they go through the development process you'd expect for a drug. We look at the commercial side, at the role of doctors. Everything we do is what would be done with a traditional medical product. It's a piece of software developed like a drug.
WALSH: What kind of conditions are you first aiming to treat with digital therapeutics?
MCCANN: We're looking at conditions that currently can't be cured with drugs. A good example is our reSET product, which is designed to treat addiction to alcohol, cannabis, stimulants, cocaine. There really aren't pharmaceutical products that are approved to treat people addicted to these substances. What we're doing is functional therapy, the standard of care for addiction treatment, but delivered via software. But we can also work with medication—our reSET-O product is a great example. It's for patients struggling with opioid addiction, and it's delivered in concert with the drug buprenorphine.
WALSH: Walk me through what the patient experience would be like for someone on a digital therapeutic like reSET.
MCCANN: Imagine you're a patient who has been diagnosed with cocaine addiction by a doctor. You would then receive a prescription for reSET during the same office visit. Instead of a pharmacy, the script is sent to the reSET Connect Patient Service Center, where you are onboarded and given an access code that is used to unlock the product after downloading it onto your device. The product has 60 different modules—each one requiring about a 10 to 15-minute interaction—all derived from a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called community reinforcement approach. The treatment takes place over 90 days.
"The patients receiving the digital therapeutic were more than twice as likely to remain abstinent as those receiving standard care."
Patients report their substance abuse, cravings and triggers, and they are also tested on core proficiencies through the therapy. Physicians have access to all of their data, which helps facilitate their one-on-one meetings. We know from regular urine tests how effective the treatment is.
WALSH: What kind of data did you find when you did clinical studies on reSET?
MCCANN: We had 399 patients in 10 centers taking part in a randomized clinical trial run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Every patient enrolled in the study had an active substance abuse disorder. The study was randomized so that patients either received the best current standard of care, which is three hours a week of face-to-face therapy, or they received the digital therapeutic. The primary endpoint was abstinence in weeks 9 to 12—if the patient had a single dirty urine screen in the last month, they counted as a failure.
In the end, the patients receiving the digital therapeutic were more than twice as likely to remain abstinent as those receiving standard care—40 percent versus 17 percent. Those receiving reSET were also much more likely to remain in treatment through the entire trial.
WALSH: Why start by focusing your first digital therapeutics on addiction?
MCCANN: We have tried to build a company that is poised to make a difference in medicine. If you look at addiction, there is little to nothing in the drug pipeline to address this. More than 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from addiction disorders, and not only is efficacy a concern, but so is access. Many patients aren't able to receive anything like the kind of face-to-face therapy our control group received. So we think digital therapeutics can make a difference there as well.
WALSH: reSET was the first digital therapeutic approved by the FDA to treat a specific disorder. What has the approval process been like?
MCCANN: It's been a learning process for all involved, including the FDA. Our philosophy is to work within the clinical trials structure, which has specific disease targets and endpoints, and develop quality software, and bring those two strands together to generate digital therapeutics. We now have two products that have been FDA-approved, and four more in development. The FDA is appropriately cautious about all of this, balancing the tradeoff between patient risk and medical value. As we see it, our company is half tech and half biotech, and we follow regulatory trials that are as rigorous as they would be with any drug company.
"This is a new space, but when you look back in 10 years there will be an entire industry of prescription digital therapeutics."
WALSH: How do you balance those two halves, the tech side and the biology side? Tech companies are known for iterating rapidly and cheaply, while pharma companies develop drugs slowly and expensively.
MCCANN: This is a new space, but when you look back in 10 years there will be an entire industry of prescription digital therapeutics. Right now for us we're combining the rigor of the pharmaceutical model with the speed and agility of a tech company. Our product takes longer to develop than an unverified health app, but less time and with less clinical risk than a new molecular entity. This is still a work in progress and not a day goes by where we don't notice the difference between those disciplines.
WALSH: Who's going to pay for these treatments? Insurers are traditionally slow to accept new innovations in the therapeutic space.
MCCANN: This is just like any drug launch. We need to show medical quality and value, and we need to get clinician demand. We want to focus on demonstrating as many scripts as we can in 2019. And we know we'll need to be persistent—we live in a world where payers will say no to anything three times before they say yes. Demonstrating value is how you get there.
WALSH: Is part of that value the possibility that digital therapeutics could be much cheaper than paying someone for multiple face-to-face therapy sessions?
MCCANN: I believe the cost model is very compelling here, especially when you can treat diseases that were not treatable before. That is something that creates medical value. Then you have the data aspect, which makes our product fundamentally different from a drug. We know everything about every patient that uses our product. We know engagement, we can push patient self-reports to clinicians. We can measure efficiency out in the real world, not just in a measured clinical trial. That is the holy grail in the pharma world—to understand compliance in practice.
WALSH: What's the future of digital therapeutics?
MCCANN: In 10 years, what we think of as digital medicine will just be medicine. This is something that will absolutely become standard of care. We are working on education to help partners and payers figure out where go from here, and to incorporate digital therapeutics into standard care. It will start in 2019 and 2020 with addiction medicine, and then in three to five years you'll see treatments designed to address disorders of the brain. And then past the decade horizon you'll see plenty of products that aim at every facet of medicine.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.