Digital-minded Novartis strikes deal to create prescription apps that team up with drugs

Putting digital into Novartis' DNA is one of CEO Vas Narasimhan’s goals, and the drugmaker has just inked another deal that aims to do just that.

The company has teamed up with Pear Therapeutics to gin up new software applications aimed at treating patients with schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis. They’ll be prescription digital therapeutics, Novartis said Thursday, indicating that the partners intend to pursue FDA approval for at least some of the products of their teamwork.

It’s far from the first time Novartis has tapped tech partners to further its goals for prescription drugs. Among its deals is a team-up with Qualcomm aimed at using the wireless giant’s connected devices and in-home collection stations to monitor patients in clinical studies, and they're developing a smart inhaler for its COPD portfolio.

But it’s yet another indicator that Novartis intends to step up its use of digital. Last August, Novartis announced its first chief digital officer, Bertrand Bodson, recruited from the retail industry. Bodson was previously chief digital and marketing officer at Argos, the online and catalog operation that grocery retailer Sainsbury acquired in 2016.

"This is not just about digital helping the business,” then-CEO Joe Jimenez said at the time. “Bertrand will help us transform our business model using digital technologies."

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Bodson started his Novartis gig Jan. 1, and soon after, on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings all, Narasimhan made it clear that Novartis plans to expand its digital and data-analysis efforts to save money, make R&D more productive and the commercial organization more effective. Machine learning and artificial intelligence—terms that no one can avoid when talking tech these days—will in the long run transform drug research, the new CEO said.

The effort with Pear Therapeutics is geared toward product development and design, namely digital products that could be paired up with Novartis meds. Pear’s current offerings adapt clinically proven treatments—such as cognitive behavioral therapy—for use on mobile and desktop apps. Armed with regulatory approval, they could be prescribed alongside drugs, Novartis said in a Thursday statement, to treat a range of diseases.

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The partners are starting out with brain diseases. Novartis will help Pear develop its Thrive product for patients with schizophrenia, which has proven in early clinical studies to not only help those patients but keep them involved with treatment, which can be a challenge in that group. The companies will also collaborate on designing a brand-new app to address depression and other mental health problems suffered by multiple sclerosis patients.

Novartis is heavily invested in multiple sclerosis; it sells a blockbuster pill, Gilenya, and its secondary progressive MS med, siponimod, is scheduled for regulatory filing this year, according to the company’s latest pipeline update. It’s also working on an anti-CD20 antibody, ofatumumab, for the relapsing remitting form of the disease, and aims to get that injectable to the FDA next year. In schizophrenia, its last launch, Fanapt, faltered to the point where Novartis scrapped its plans for a long-acting version of the drug, but it’s focusing on new targets and technologies in early clinical research. (Vanda, Novartis' partner on Fanapt, is still marketing that med.)

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Of course, Novartis isn’t alone in attempting to make a digital transformation. Last summer, GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley, who comes from a consumer health background, named former Walmart Stores executive Karenann Terrell to the new senior position of chief digital and technology officer to help the company harness data and digital to push forward. Terrell, who left Walmart in March, has also done stints at Baxter International and DaimlerChrysler.