San Diego’s prowess in computer science, medical devices, and life sciences makes it a natural hub of innovative digital health companies. The finalists in the Digital Trailblazer category of the Xconomy Awards San Diego highlight the wide variety of healthtech ideas emanating from local startups and big companies alike, ranging from virtual coaches for physical therapy patients, to experimental software designed to address Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Here are brief profiles of the finalists.
This is part of a series of articles about the finalists for the Xconomy Awards San Diego. We’ve written about the CEO, Commitment to Diversity, and Innovation at the Intersection finalists, and stay tuned for coverage of the other finalists.
Each cancer patient’s disease is different. The good news is there are now millions of potential treatment options. That can be bad news, too.
“It becomes overwhelming for even the best, most ambitious oncologist,” CureMatch CEO Bob Manning writes in an email message.
His company’s software attempts to help oncologists narrow the choices. It uses machine learning and other technologies to analyze a cancer patient’s genomic data and comb through more than 4.5 million different drug combinations to generate a scored and ranked list of what it deems the most promising treatment plans, matched to the individual patient’s disease. The software also provides evidence backing up its recommendations, Manning says.
CureMatch’s software was initially developed by Razelle Kurzrock, an oncologist and precision medicine researcher at UC San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center, and Igor Tsigelny, who has served as a research professor at Moores and the San Diego Supercomputer Center. They co-founded CureMatch along with Blaise Barrelet, who was the CEO and is now board chair. Kurzrock serves as the company’s chief medical advisor and Tsigelny as its chief science officer.
Part of CureMatch’s pitch is that its analysis is more comprehensive than tumor-profiling services from other companies because it incorporates multiple types of tumor profiling results, and it looks at all of a patient’s cancer mutations together instead of individually.
CureMatch has presented data demonstrating its software correctly predicted treatment response in almost 80 percent of the cases examined. The startup is currently running a prospective clinical trial of its technology in partnership with the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Manning says.
His company has raised about $3 million from investors, and he expects revenues to ramp up this year, thanks in part to a recent licensing deal with France-based pharmaceutical firm Servier.
Despite the many medical advances over the past 30 years, one area of healthcare that has had a frustrating lack of progress is Alzheimer’s therapies. Since a pair of old cognition-boosting drugs were approved to treat the disease in 1996 and 2003, the field has endured a series of failed experimental drugs, including ones from Roche and Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) this year.
Dthera Sciences CEO Edward Cox argues it’s time for a “radical rethink in the way we approach” neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, including adopting a multidisciplinary treatment strategy that adds digital technologies to caregivers’ arsenal, he says.
His company is developing a product that would use software and a custom tablet device to deliver reminiscence therapy to Alzheimer’s sufferers. Reminiscence therapy is a common behavioral intervention that involves presenting familiar pictures, music, and other materials to help patients remember past experiences. The problem is this intervention is labor intensive, Dthera says. The company’s pitch is that digital technologies would enable more efficient delivery of the therapy to more patients.
Dthera is positioning its system as a treatment for agitation and depression—common Alzheimer’s symptoms. Last year, the FDA gave Dthera’s experimental product “breakthrough device” status, a program meant to expedite development and review of treatments for life-threatening or irreversibly debilitating conditions.
If Dthera’s product wins FDA clearance, it would be the first non-pharmacological prescription treatment approved for Alzheimer’s symptoms, the company says. It would also be another notch in the belt for the emerging field of digital therapeutics, following FDA clearance in 2017 and 2018 for Pear Therapeutics’ mobile app-based treatments for substance use disorder and opioid use disorder, respectively.
Cox says Dthera plans to run a pivotal trial this year or next, and file for FDA approval after that, with the aim of getting the agency’s green light some time in 2020, he adds.
One of the criticisms of the digital health sector is many companies don’t undergo rigorous clinical trials to prove the effectiveness of their products. But Reflexion Health decided it didn’t have a shot at winning widespread adoption of its virtual physical therapy (PT) system without convincing clinical data.
CEO Joe Smith says his 60-person company put “a fair bit on the line” to run what it called the first “large-scale” comparison of virtual and traditional, in-person PT: a randomized, controlled trial completed by 287 patients who had undergone total knee replacement surgery. The study, run in conjunction with the Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI) at Duke University, tested Reflexion’s virtual system, which is intended to help patients complete their recovery at home and on their own schedule. The study showed that the system was as effective as standard therapy at improving knee function and reducing disability. It also saved an average of $2,745 per patient, due to reductions in rehospitalizations and “post-acute” care services at hospitals, clinics, and skilled nursing facilities.
Reflexion’s FDA-cleared system, VERA (“virtual exercise rehabilitation assistant”), uses Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing camera to monitor and analyze patient movement during at-home therapy sessions. An avatar on a touchscreen-enabled device coaches patients through exercises and models the correct movements. Video of their sessions is sent to their therapists, and the Reflexion system can also host video conferences between patients and caregivers. Clinicians are able to track patients’ progress more closely, among other benefits, Smith says.
He declined to share sales figures, but says Reflexion’s system is being used by patients in … Next Page »