Now that Roche Holding AG has digested its Foundation Medicine and Flatiron acquisitions from a few years ago, it has looked to add more digital capabilities in a couple of recent deals. The earlier big-ticket tie-ups by the Basel, Switzerland-based pharma added genomic and real-world data analytics to deepen the knowledge driving Roche’s R&D efforts, particularly in oncology.

But the last couple of recent deals have focused on adding patient-facing digital capabilities to improve their treatment support and options. In May, Roche did a pair of digital health deals. One was with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to develop a digital remote monitoring system for chemotherapy patients to better manage side effects at home, while the other was with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. subsidiary Harman to develop a digital therapeutic for patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Digital landscape

“Within the personalized health care partnering space, we really have several areas of focus,” Gregg Talbert, Roche Head of Digital & Personalized Healthcare in Pharma Partnering, told BioWorld. “One is gaining access to real-world data that would allow us to improve decision-making across a variety of fronts to provide insights for us within our business. The second is analytical tools and ways to both manipulate the data in terms of the identification, linking and maintaining the identification and the analysis of that data through AI applications.”

“Then there is digital, which is a very broad category, and this ranges from platforms that allow us to more efficiently capture patient reported outcomes and facilitate the communication between health care providers and patients, all the way to predictive tools like the tools that we're developing with the Fred Hutch, which we've added recently in oncology,” he continued. “Then on the far side of the spectrum are digital therapeutics.”

The recent Roche moves in digital health come just as the unfolding novel coronavirus pandemic has made it imperative for patients to receive as much high-quality care as possible outside of the traditional doctor’s office or hospital setting – in order to limit patient and caregiver exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

But pharma companies have struggled to make digital health deals work after an initial barrage of activity a few years ago in the sector. Last fall, Novartis AG ended its relationship with digital therapeutics startup Pear Therapeutics Inc.; the pair will no longer co-promote substance use disorder (SUD) and opioid use disorder (OUD) programs with Pear assuming sole responsibility.

In addition, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., an early partner for Proteus Digital Health Inc., dropped out of that deal for digital medication adherence monitoring. Most recently, Sanofi SA said it would pull out of its digital diabetes management joint venture with Google sister company Verily Life Sciences known as Onduo.

Several digital therapeutics have been approved by FDA in the last few years – and the regulator is encouraging more – but commercialization remains an obstacle as payers and providers hesitate to embrace the novel, hard-to-grasp category that’s so different from traditional drugs, making education and more patient outcomes and economic data a top priority.

“We're developing the digital therapeutic for ASD to be one that demonstrates safety and efficacy in much the same way that we would do in a clinical trial for a molecule,” said Talbert. “So, it would be the same in a prescription-type environment that we would sell that into.”

“Another way that digital improves the overall health delivery system is, it presents us with the ability to create closer relationships with many of our traditional customers in the health system, the physicians that prescribe the products,” he continued. “It opens up the opportunity for us to partner with them much as we did with Fred Hutch around tools that may help a patient, but also help some of their concerns about readmissions, or unplanned visits to the emergency department. And we feel that it changes the tone of the conversation. For the first time in the modern history of health care, we have the opportunity to truly change the cost curve.”

Data deepening

It’s not quite clear yet how its earlier investments in digital health, with the Flatiron and Foundation Medicine acquisitions, are paying off for Roche, particularly when it comes to fundamentally advancing drug development. But if those benefits are coming, they will certainly take much longer than a couple of years.

Flatiron and FMI have produced a slew of research studies in partnership with Roche, and joined forces together themselves to create a clinico-genomic database that combines to unlock at scale the real-world information contained in electronic health records alongside genomic testing. That could prove a fundamental step toward making personalized medicine more of a reality.

Both remain independent companies as part of Roche and frequently partner with other pharma companies, but obviously the Roche relationship is a close one that has helped reshape thinking and activity all around within each of these intertwined entities.

“What owning them and having brought them into the Roche network has done is that our use of the data generated by Flatiron and Foundation Medicine has increased dramatically,” said Talbert. “Now, the strategy that they have together of broadening their data offerings, of building out their clinico-genomic data set and data marts in different indications has accelerated as well by having them under one umbrella and being able to pursue that joint strategy.”

“We do actually act as a sounding board for them as they look at other data types of importance that they should bring in that would help pharma overall, but certainly you know us and our view of things. As we look at things like combining their data with imaging data, that's something that's clearly very important to us and we hope to pursue. And if we look also at their efforts to bring out an IVD (in vitro diagnostics) kit for NGS (next-generation sequencing) testing, having Roche behind that is important.”