Pharma has a real-world problem, and it's the lag in its sensor adoption: expert

Pharma’s not exactly the quickest to adopt new technology, but those who've been following the slew of “smart inhaler” deals over the past few years may think sensor technology is one area where the industry is up to speed.

Not so, says Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, cofounder and CEO of Montreal-based health tech company Hexoskin. The way he sees it, “monitoring technology in general is a huge blind spot for pharma right now, even if they say they’re looking at it.”

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The industry needs to get with it now or pay for it later—literally. The reason? Sensor tech will be adopted faster at a large scale in healthcare than in pharma trials, he figures, and that means “the drugs you are developing today are going to be seen with tools that you are not using in your trials right now.”

That could cost drugmakers billions of dollars, Fournier said, if they launch products only to find that monitoring tech turns up real-world outcomes that don’t meet payers’ standards.

Fournier knows firsthand how quickly sensor technology is developing. Hexoskin, one of many life science companies based in Quebec—a Canadian province that, as part of its recently released life sciences strategy, is gunning for a top-five spot in terms of North American biopharma hubs—is working to take monitoring to the next level. It’s developed “smart shirts” that can continuously monitor patients’ hearts, lungs, and sleep and activity data, without the clunkiness and discomfort of traditional wearables.

The result? A real-world data generator Fournier says is “going to become especially important for pharma companies who have products for patients with chronic care."

“Now that we have tools to follow these patients more closely, it also means we have tools to measure the outcome of the treatments and medication they take for their disease,” he said, adding that it’s “going to affect the way payers are going to pay for the drugs” for conditions such as hypertension and COPD.

Some pharma companies are already working with Hexoskin, Fournier said, noting that the company has teamed up with drugmakers on implementing smart shirts in clinical trials for COPD drugs.

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Still, though—despite the smart inhalers that may be popping up here in there in respiratory trials for the likes of GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Boehringer Ingelheim—Fournier says pharma needs to pick up the pace.

“It’s not been easy,” he said, adding, "I don’t think they’re doing an investment that is proportional to the business risk of not using these technologies, and I hope it’s going to change in the next few years.”