You may be familiar with Moore's Law, the prediction made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that computer chips would get faster and cheaper with each passing year. That's been borne out by the explosive growth of the tech industry, but you may not know that there is an inverse Moore's Law for drug development.
What if there were a way to apply the fast-moving, low-cost techniques of software development to drug discovery?
Eroom's Law—yes that's "Moore" spelled backward—is the observation that drug discovery has become slower and more expensive over time, despite technological improvements. And just like Moore's Law, it's been borne out by experience—from the 1950s to today, the number of drugs that can be developed per billion dollars in spending has steadily decreased, contributing to the continued growth of health care costs.
But what if there were a way to apply the fast-moving, low-cost techniques of software development to drug discovery? That's what a group of startups in the new field of digital therapeutics are promising. They develop apps that are used—either on their own or in conjunction with conventional drugs—to treat chronic disorders like addiction, diabetes and mental health that have so far resisted a pharmaceutical approach. Unlike the thousands of wellness and health apps that can be downloaded to your phone, digital therapeutics are developed and are meant to be used like drugs, complete with clinical trials, FDA approval and doctor prescriptions.
The field is hot—in 2017 global investment in digital therapeutics jumped to $11.5 billion, a fivefold increase from 2012, and major pharma companies like Novartis are developing their own digital products or partnering with startups. One such startup is the bicoastal Pear Therapeutics. Last month, Pear's reSET-O product became the first digital therapeutic to be approved for use by the millions of Americans who struggle with opioid use disorder, and the company has other products addressing addiction and mental illness in the pipeline.
I spoke with Dr. Corey McCann, Pear's CEO, about the company's efforts to meld software and medicine, designing clinical trials for an entirely new kind of treatment, and the future of digital therapeutics.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
"We're looking at conditions that currently can't be cured with drugs."
BRYAN WALSH: What makes a digital therapeutic different than a wellness app?
COREY MCCANN: What we do is develop therapeutics that are designed to be used under the auspices of a physician, just as a drug developed under good manufacturing would be. We do clinical studies for both safety and efficacy, and then they go through the development process you'd expect for a drug. We look at the commercial side, at the role of doctors. Everything we do is what would be done with a traditional medical product. It's a piece of software developed like a drug.
WALSH: What kind of conditions are you first aiming to treat with digital therapeutics?
MCCANN: We're looking at conditions that currently can't be cured with drugs. A good example is our reSET product, which is designed to treat addiction to alcohol, cannabis, stimulants, cocaine. There really aren't pharmaceutical products that are approved to treat people addicted to these substances. What we're doing is functional therapy, the standard of care for addiction treatment, but delivered via software. But we can also work with medication—our reSET-O product is a great example. It's for patients struggling with opioid addiction, and it's delivered in concert with the drug buprenorphine.
WALSH: Walk me through what the patient experience would be like for someone on a digital therapeutic like reSET.
MCCANN: Imagine you're a patient who has been diagnosed with cocaine addiction by a doctor. You would then receive a prescription for reSET during the same office visit. Instead of a pharmacy, the script is sent to the reSET Connect Patient Service Center, where you are onboarded and given an access code that is used to unlock the product after downloading it onto your device. The product has 60 different modules—each one requiring about a 10 to 15-minute interaction—all derived from a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called community reinforcement approach. The treatment takes place over 90 days.
"The patients receiving the digital therapeutic were more than twice as likely to remain abstinent as those receiving standard care."
Patients report their substance abuse, cravings and triggers, and they are also tested on core proficiencies through the therapy. Physicians have access to all of their data, which helps facilitate their one-on-one meetings. We know from regular urine tests how effective the treatment is.
WALSH: What kind of data did you find when you did clinical studies on reSET?
MCCANN: We had 399 patients in 10 centers taking part in a randomized clinical trial run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Every patient enrolled in the study had an active substance abuse disorder. The study was randomized so that patients either received the best current standard of care, which is three hours a week of face-to-face therapy, or they received the digital therapeutic. The primary endpoint was abstinence in weeks 9 to 12—if the patient had a single dirty urine screen in the last month, they counted as a failure.
In the end, the patients receiving the digital therapeutic were more than twice as likely to remain abstinent as those receiving standard care—40 percent versus 17 percent. Those receiving reSET were also much more likely to remain in treatment through the entire trial.
WALSH: Why start by focusing your first digital therapeutics on addiction?
MCCANN: We have tried to build a company that is poised to make a difference in medicine. If you look at addiction, there is little to nothing in the drug pipeline to address this. More than 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from addiction disorders, and not only is efficacy a concern, but so is access. Many patients aren't able to receive anything like the kind of face-to-face therapy our control group received. So we think digital therapeutics can make a difference there as well.
WALSH: reSET was the first digital therapeutic approved by the FDA to treat a specific disorder. What has the approval process been like?
MCCANN: It's been a learning process for all involved, including the FDA. Our philosophy is to work within the clinical trials structure, which has specific disease targets and endpoints, and develop quality software, and bring those two strands together to generate digital therapeutics. We now have two products that have been FDA-approved, and four more in development. The FDA is appropriately cautious about all of this, balancing the tradeoff between patient risk and medical value. As we see it, our company is half tech and half biotech, and we follow regulatory trials that are as rigorous as they would be with any drug company.
"This is a new space, but when you look back in 10 years there will be an entire industry of prescription digital therapeutics."
WALSH: How do you balance those two halves, the tech side and the biology side? Tech companies are known for iterating rapidly and cheaply, while pharma companies develop drugs slowly and expensively.
MCCANN: This is a new space, but when you look back in 10 years there will be an entire industry of prescription digital therapeutics. Right now for us we're combining the rigor of the pharmaceutical model with the speed and agility of a tech company. Our product takes longer to develop than an unverified health app, but less time and with less clinical risk than a new molecular entity. This is still a work in progress and not a day goes by where we don't notice the difference between those disciplines.
WALSH: Who's going to pay for these treatments? Insurers are traditionally slow to accept new innovations in the therapeutic space.
MCCANN: This is just like any drug launch. We need to show medical quality and value, and we need to get clinician demand. We want to focus on demonstrating as many scripts as we can in 2019. And we know we'll need to be persistent—we live in a world where payers will say no to anything three times before they say yes. Demonstrating value is how you get there.
WALSH: Is part of that value the possibility that digital therapeutics could be much cheaper than paying someone for multiple face-to-face therapy sessions?
MCCANN: I believe the cost model is very compelling here, especially when you can treat diseases that were not treatable before. That is something that creates medical value. Then you have the data aspect, which makes our product fundamentally different from a drug. We know everything about every patient that uses our product. We know engagement, we can push patient self-reports to clinicians. We can measure efficiency out in the real world, not just in a measured clinical trial. That is the holy grail in the pharma world—to understand compliance in practice.
WALSH: What's the future of digital therapeutics?
MCCANN: In 10 years, what we think of as digital medicine will just be medicine. This is something that will absolutely become standard of care. We are working on education to help partners and payers figure out where go from here, and to incorporate digital therapeutics into standard care. It will start in 2019 and 2020 with addiction medicine, and then in three to five years you'll see treatments designed to address disorders of the brain. And then past the decade horizon you'll see plenty of products that aim at every facet of medicine.
Terror. Error. Success. These are the three outcomes that ethicists evaluating a new technology should fear. The possibility that a breakthrough might be used maliciously. The possibility that newly empowered scientists might make a catastrophic mistake. And the possibility that a technology will be so successful that it will change how we live in ways that we can only guess—and that we may not want.
These tools will allow scientists to practice genetic engineering on a scale that is simultaneously far more precise and far more ambitious than ever before.
It was true for the scientists behind the Manhattan Project, who bequeathed a fear of nuclear terror and nuclear error, even as global security is ultimately defined by these weapons of mass destruction. It was true for the developers of the automobile, whose invention has been weaponized by terrorists and kills 3,400 people by accident each day, even as the more than 1 billion cars on the road today have utterly reshaped where we live and how we move. And it is true for the researchers behind the revolution in gene editing and writing.
Put simply, these tools will allow scientists to practice genetic engineering on a scale that is simultaneously far more precise and far more ambitious than ever before. Editing techniques like CRISPR enable exact genetic repairs through a simple cut and paste of DNA, while synthetic biologists aim to redo entire genomes through the writing and substitution of synthetic genes. The technologies are complementary, and they herald an era when the book of life will be not just readable, but rewritable. Food crops, endangered animals, even the human body itself—all will eventually be programmable.
The benefits are easy to imagine: more sustainable crops; cures for terminal genetic disorders; even an end to infertility. Also easy to picture are the ethical pitfalls as the negative images of those same benefits.
Terror is the most straightforward. States have sought to use biology as a weapon at least since invading armies flung the corpses of plague victims into besieged castles. The 1975 biological weapons convention banned—with general success—the research and production of offensive bioweapons, though a handful of lone terrorists and groups like the Oregon-based Rajneeshee cult have still carried out limited bioweapon attacks. Those incidents ultimately caused little death and damage, in part because medical science is mostly capable of defending us from those pathogens that are most easily weaponized. But gene editing and writing offers the chance to engineer germs that could be far more effective than anything nature could develop. Imagine a virus that combines the lethality of Ebola with the transmissibility of the common cold—and in the new world of biology, if you can imagine something, you will eventually be able to create it.
The benefits are easy to imagine: more sustainable crops; cures for terminal genetic disorders; even an end to infertility. Also easy to picture are the ethical pitfalls.
That's one reason why James Clapper, then the U.S. director of national intelligence, added gene editing to the list of threats posed by "weapons of mass destruction and proliferation" in 2016. But these new tools aren't merely dangerous in the wrong hands—they can also be dangerous in the right hands. The list of labs accidents involving lethal bugs is much longer than you'd want to know, at least if you're the sort of person who likes to sleep at night. The U.S. recently lifted a ban on research that works to make existing pathogens, like the H5N1 avian flu virus, more virulent and transmissible, often using new technologies like gene editing. Such work can help medicine better prepare for what nature might throw at us, but it could also make the consequences of a lab error far more catastrophic. There's also the possibility that the use of gene editing and writing in nature—say, by CRISPRing disease-carrying mosquitoes to make them sterile—could backfire in some unforeseen way. Add in the fact that the techniques behind gene editing and writing are becoming simpler and more automated with every year, and eventually millions of people will be capable—through terror or error—of unleashing something awful on the world.
The good news is that both the government and the researchers driving these technologies are increasingly aware of the risks of bioterror and error. One government program, the Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats (Fun GCAT), provides funding for scientists to scan genetic data looking for the "accidental or intentional creation of a biological threat." Those in the biotech industry know to keep an eye out for suspicious orders—say, a new customer who orders part of the sequence of the Ebola or smallpox virus. "With every invention there is a good use and a bad use," Emily Leproust, the CEO of the commercial DNA synthesis startup Twist Bioscience, said in a recent interview. "What we try hard to do is put in place as many systems as we can to maximize the good stuff, and minimize any negative impact."
But the greatest ethical challenges in gene editing and writing will arise not from malevolence or mistakes, but from success. Through a new technology called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), scientists are learning how to turn adult human cells like a piece of skin into lab-made sperm and egg cells. That would be a huge breakthrough for the infertile, or for same-sex couples who want to conceive a child biologically related to both partners. It would also open the door to using gene editing to tinker with those lab-made embryos. At first interventions would address any obvious genetic disorders, but those same tools would likely allow the engineering of a child's intelligence, height and other characteristics. We might be morally repelled today by such an ability, as many scientists and ethicists were repelled by in-vitro fertilization (IVF) when it was introduced four decades ago. Yet more than a million babies in the U.S. have been born through IVF in the years since. Ethics can evolve along with technology.
These new technologies offer control over the code of life, but only we as a society can seize control over where these tools will take us.
Fertility is just one human institution that stands to be changed utterly by gene editing and writing, and it's a change we can at least imagine. As the new biology grows more ambitious, it will alter society in ways we can't begin to picture. Harvard's George Church and New York University's Jef Boeke are leading an effort called HGP-Write to create a completely synthetic human genome. While gene editing allows scientists to make small changes to the genome, the gene synthesis that Church and his collaborators are developing allows for total genetic rewrites. "It's a difference between editing a book and writing one," Church said in an interview earlier this year.
Church is already working on synthesizing organs that would be resistant to viruses, while other researchers like Harris Wang at Columbia University are experimenting with bioengineering mammalian cells to produce nutrients like amino acids that we currently need to get from food. The horizon is endless—and so are the ethical concerns of success. What if parents feel pressure to engineer their children just so they don't fall behind their IVG peers? What if only the rich are able to access synthetic biology technologies that could make them stronger, smarter and longer lived? Could inequality become encoded in the genome?
These are questions that are different from the terror and errors fears around biosecurity, because they ask us to think hard about what kind of future we want. To their credit, Church and his collaborators have engaged bioethicists from the start of their work, as have the pioneers behind CRISPR. But the challenges coming from successful gene editing and writing are too large to be outsourced to professional ethicists. These new technologies offer control over the code of life, but only we as a society can seize control over where these tools will take us.