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.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”