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.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."