Drug delivery: Fertile ground for pharma-device company partnerships?

Medtronic SynchroMed II Programmable Infusion Pump, a collaboration between Medtronic and Mallinckrodt--Courtesy of Medtronic

BOSTON--Whether through collaboration with academia or buyouts of smaller players, panelists at the Partnership Opportunities in Drug Delivery conference concurred that Big Pharma is increasingly looking externally for innovation and using its size and financials to power candidates through clinical trials and onto the market. The next frontier of partnerships may very well include collaborations with medical device companies that have expertise in drug delivery and other product enhancing technologies.

"At Novartis, we see a shift away from a purely molecule-driven model, to one where we foresee that most likely products in the future will have molecules still be an important part, but they'll be combined with technologies such as … remote patient monitoring technologies," said the company's ($NVS) global head of chemical and pharmaceutical profiling, Riccardo Panicucci, during the panel discussion.

"I think what that will do is allow to us treat diseases we currently do not treat. You hear a lot about patient-centric therapies nowadays, I think that combination of molecules and specific technologies will allow us to achieve that," he continued.

Device-pharma company partnerships are rare, but not unheard of. In January Medtronic ($MDT) partnered with Mallinckrodt ($MNK) to collaborate on the development and testing of the pharma company's intrathecal therapeutics--delivered to the patient's spinal fluid--using the Medtronic SynchroMed Programmable Infusion System.

And Mary Gardner, director of technology assessment at Hospira ($HSP) suggested that smaller drug delivery specialists may benefit from collaborations with device companies, too. "The barriers to entry are getting high, and that makes it difficult for a smaller startup company to get traction with Big Pharma," she said. "They may need to partner with an intermediary, perhaps a device company, in order to be able to bring it up to the scale and the quality that is necessary."

But Gardner warned that the partnering device company might take control of the drug delivery platform in return for its resources. More generally, the panelists concurred that partnerships in drug delivery are underutilized because of hurdles like time, cost, and clinical and regulatory issues. Drug delivery partnerships are hard to pull off due to risk aversion and the inertia of established ways. This would be especially true in the case of device-pharma company collaborations, as the two industries are actually quite different economically and in terms of product regulations.

Still, device companies have long played in the drug delivery space. Moreover, many of the newer drug delivering technologies are combination products involving drugs reformulated to fit novel delivery devices such as tiny implants enabling continuous delivery or sustained release from within the body.

At the conference, 3M touted its hollow microstructured transdermal system for intradermal delivery of biologics, including from the home. And a sister product for solid microneedle delivery is being developed. Pharma company Radius Health is developing a transdermal patch for its compound to treat osteoporosis, based on 3M's clinical-stage solid microneedle device. The companies signed an exclusive partnership agreement in 2011 and 2012.

- here's the conference website