We talked to the CEO of a $1.5 billion startup making ‘smart’ pills about how the tech could help patients whose insurers deem them ‘too risky’

  • The $1.5 billion startup Proteus Digital Health makes 'smart' pills, which use sensors embedded in the medication to track when patients take them. 
  • The sensor technology powers the $1,650-a-month drug Abilify MyCite, which was the first digital pill approved by the FDA in late 2017.
  • But Proteus has also faced criticism about whether patients using the tech take their pills more consistently, as well as on ethical issues.
  • During the CB Insights Future of Health conference on Wednesday, Proteus CEO Andrew Thompson rebutted many of these concerns. He pointed to a new study as evidence that the tech can help individuals deemed by their health insurers as "too risky" for expensive Hepatitis C medications.
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The $1.5 billion startup Proteus Digital Health makes 'smart' pills that track when patients take their meds. The model is one that many are betting could be the future of medicine — but it's also been the subject of a wave of criticism. 

Proteus CEO and cofounder Andrew Thompson pushed back against many of those concerns on Wednesday, saying that Proteus' tech is aimed at making prescription drugs work better for patients. He also pointed to a new study the company is releasing as evidence that the products can help those deemed by their health insurers as "too risky" for expensive medications.

"Drugs don't work if you don't take them," Thompson said, speaking in conversation with Business Insider senior healthcare reporter Emma Court on Wednesday at CB Insights' Future of Health conference.

Proteus's "smart" pills are embedded with sensors, tracking when patients take a given drug and, with their permission, giving people like doctors and caregivers access to the data. A sensor patch worn by the patient tracks that activity, recording it on an app. 

Proteus first debuted this model with the drug Abilify MyCite, which is intended for conditions like schizophrenia and was the first digital pill approved by the FDA in late 2018. 

In January, the company launched digital oncology medicines, aiming to ensure that patients complete oral chemotherapy cycles while oncologists gain new insights into their patients' treatment progress and overall health status. 

Read more: A Silicon Valley company just launched 'smart' cancer pills that track you with tiny sensors stamped into your medications

Skepticism as to whether the medication sensors improve patient's taking their medication  

However, research on whether these types of pills actually help patients take their medications when they should still remains unclear, Business Insider previously reported

A Proteus-sponsored study of roughly 100 patients with hypertension and type 2 diabetes suggested that its digital pills might be an improvement on regular pills, but the results were somewhat mixed. Researchers behind the study, found Proteus' digital pills led to slightly better measures of blood pressure, but rates of medication adherence — or whether or not patients took their pills when they were supposed to — were not measured as part of the study. 

Notably, though, an analysis in a BMJ journal this summer said that the FDA's approval of Abilify MyCity was based on weak evidence. And Abilify MyCite's label says that the technology hasn't been shown to improve patient compliance with their medications. Thompson said at the conference that was more a reflection of the difficulties of conducting studies, as the control group for the studies are difficult to maintain.  

Proteus presents new data to combat skeptics 

As a response to the criticism, during the conference Thompson pointed to data from a new study conducted by Proteus that will be published in November. The study will be presented at a conference that month, and an abstract is available online.

The study looked at individuals living with Hepatitis C to see if the technology could help patients take their medications and lead to the disease being cured.

The study looked at 288 patients from 18 medical centers across the US, who were considered to be at risk of not taking their medicines regularly. The results from the study showed that 99.5% of the patients in the study were cured. The study didn't compare the Proteus pills to other Hepatitis C treatments.

Thompson said the point of the study was to show that any patient, regardless of social determinants, or the conditions of their environment, can be successful with drug therapy. 

Focus on value-based care, not cost 

Whether tech like Proteus's also adds costs to the US healthcare system is an open question. Abilify MyCite, for instance, costs $1,650 a month, much more than the inexpensive generic, the Washington Post has reported

Thompson responded to this at the conference by saying that his company's goal is to focus on value, through better health outcomes for patients, rather than the cost of treating patients. 

He put it like so: "If you don't take cheaper generics, they aren't any good." 

In the Hepatitis C study, Thompson outlined the potential for high costs for the healthcare system if a patient has liver failure as a result of not taking their medication. Similarly, with Abilify MyCite, there are potentially severe consequences of individuals with schizophrenia missing doses.

He argued that the monthly cost of Proteus's drug technology will be less than the potentially high longterm costs to the healthcare system if patients don't take their medications. 

"The patient learns their habits to see how they use their medicine. So does their family, so does their healthcare team. It gives the patient comfort," he said. 

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