(Bloomberg) -- Sanofi is joining other big pharmaceutical companies in expanding beyond pills and injections into a new frontier of tech-based treatments that doctors can prescribe.
Working with partner Happify Health, the French drugmaker is studying a potential digital therapy for patients with depression and multiple sclerosis. That follows the launch last year of a similar type of prescription treatment from Novartis AG and Pear Therapeutics Inc. aimed at substance abuse, the first of its kind to win U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.
“The regulatory pathway has really become much more amenable, and we know for certain diseases, a digital therapeutic can actually be very effective,” Chief Digital Officer Ameet Nathwani said in an interview at Sanofi’s headquarters in Paris. “There’s an opportunity in finding alternatives that are lower cost and can be delivered in a different way.”
Drugmakers are looking increasingly at apps and other software tools that are proven in trials, reviewed by regulators and prescribed by doctors to treat a range of diseases. As costs to develop new drugs climb and health systems push back on prices, pharma companies are teaming up with artificial intelligence specialists, hiring data scientists or even snapping up tech startups in a bid to become faster and more efficient.
“If you look at the cycle times, clearly in digital therapeutics they’re disruptively shorter,” according to Nathwani, who added the tech role to his responsibilities as Sanofi’s chief medical officer earlier this year.
Newly created digital jobs at companies ranging from GlaxoSmithKline Plc to Novartis are a sign of the industry’s desire to expand in the tech realm. Otsuka Pharmaceutical in January agreed to pay as much as $300 million to Click Therapeutics Inc. to develop digital therapies for patients with major depression. Deals and partnerships between pharma and digital-therapeutics companies are likely to increase in 2019, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
Digital medicine aims to improve patients’ health by giving them ways to alter behavior, tools to cope with disease or reminders to take medicine. For example, Pear is developing therapies to follow Reset, an app approved by the FDA in 2017 that trains patients to modify drug-taking behavior. Other medical apps help patients manage their prescription drugs.
While Sanofi looks at combining software with drugs to improve treatment of different disorders, it said the new study could open the door for the company in the area of standalone digital treatments. Happify brings together scientists and game designers to develop new therapies, according to its website.
“We’re looking to see whether we can not just improve the depression, but the question then is can you improve some of the underlying MS attributes,” Nathwani said. “Digital therapeutics could be an interesting option for us.”
European regulators aren’t moving as swiftly as their U.S. counterparts in endorsing some of the new technologies and digital-health initiatives, he said later in a briefing with journalists. At least some of the delay may be due to Brexit and disruption caused by the European Medicines Agency’s move from London to Amsterdam, he said.
“In Europe, I think it’s going to take more time,” he said. “We’re hoping they will very quickly pick up the baton.”
(Adds comments on regulators in last paragraphs.)
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