Connecting cancer patients to clinical trials that could help them is an expensive and inefficient process. Houston’s MolecularMatch says they have a better way, an approach that combines Google search with Match.com.
“What we do is take publicly available information and package it so that it’s actionable,” says MolecularMatch CEO Kevin Coker. “We distill the information that’s out there, render it out to people in an easy-to-digest manner.”
The Houston startup is bringing a consumer-friendly approach to what is now an opaque and hard-to-access market. With a few clicks of the mouse, MolecularMatch says its platform enables oncologists to quickly find clinical trials and FDA-approved therapies best-suited for their patients’ treatment.
Right now, caregivers cross-reference clinical trials through a pen-and-paper process unique to each hospital. “Clinical trials are broken,” Coker says. “They’re so inefficient and they’re expensive.”
MolecularMatch has developed software that will seek out and aggregate raw clinical trial information from public sources, such as government databases like clinicaltrials.gov, to create an easy-to-use online database where patients, with certain cancer mutations and other health characteristics, can be paired with the clinical trial that will most help them. The software also tracks patient response data. The site is expected to go live by July.
MolecularMatch isn’t the only group that’s finding clinical trials—the most expensive part of bringing a new drug to market—as fertile ground for innovation.
In 2007, the FDA and Duke University Medical Center established a public-private collaboration called the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative (CTTI) to make clinical trials more efficient. The effort has more than 60 members today. Two years ago, 10 pharmaceutical giants formed a nonprofit group, Transcelerate BioPharma, with the goal of accelerating the pace of drug development by, most notably, improving the connection between clinical trials and patients.
This past February, I spoke to Asker Ahmed, founder of Dallas-based Clinata, another online portal with software designed to offer caregivers an opportunity to browse patient demographics, geographic locations, and other data related to choosing clinical trial sites. Ahmed, who says he saw the inefficiencies inherent in clinical trials when he founded and ran iProcess Global Research, also in Dallas, expects his site to launch this summer.
Prompting all this activity is the fact that, on average, running a trial can cost about $1 million a day, a sum that pharmaceutical companies are keen to reduce. The current process makes it difficult, if not impossible, to garner real-time data showing when a trial has closed or is about to close. That means that only about 3 percent of cancer patients participate, leaving out a large group of people who might have been helped by new therapies, MolecularMatch says.
“In our tool, you can go to the Web and check every day for trials,” Coker says. “You can use it in real-time to empower both the patient and the physician in a way that’s just like a Google search.”
The need for such a service became apparent in early 2013 to James Welsh, an assistant professor in radiation oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, as advances in genetics have enabled tumors to be broken down into hundreds of variations.
Indeed, companies such as Foundation Medicine in Cambridge, MA, or Molecular Health, based in suburban Houston, have found such genetic sequencing to be a lucrative market, worth $5.9 billion in 2011, according to Booz Allen Hamilton. The firm estimates that the number of available tests has grown from 1,680 in 2008 to nearly 3,000 four years later. Today, genetic sequencing costs about $1,000, a fraction of the price a decade ago.
This era of precision medicine is bringing on a “tidal wave of data,” says Welsh, who is the company’s chief medical officer. “Ten years ago, everyone got the same treatment,” he added. “Now, it’s 100 smaller sub-diseases, and each needs a specific treatment.”
Welsh earlier this year connected with Nick Tackes, a programmer and husband of a fellow radiation oncologist, who has written the software that underpins MolecularMatch. Coker, a former executive at US Oncology Research in the Houston suburb of The Woodlands, joined the company as CEO last month, bringing MolecularMatch up to six employees.
MolecularMatch’s service will be free to doctors and their patients. Executives say the company will derive its revenue from pharmaceutical companies who would pay a per patient referral fee in order to be connected with patients. Currently, many clinical trials do not have adequate enrollment numbers by the time the trial opens.
Coker says the current patient recruitment process is like a “net with really huge holes in it,” costing pharmaceutical companies between $10,000 to $15,000 per patient in recruitment costs. “Dear doctor” letter campaigns and other recruitment plans have a very low success rate, he added.
MolecularMatch’s technology can drop this recruitment cost by 90 percent. (Coker says the company is speaking with two drug companies and expects to have contracts in place by its July launch.)
“We’ll be the intermediary,” Coker says. “Pharma can’t speak directly to them, but we can gain information on what patients are looking for or why a patient didn’t qualify for a trial so that they (drug companies) can augment or tailor their trial to make it better.”
MolecularMatch licensed its technology from the University of Texas earlier this month and has raised $3.1 million from investors such the Goose Society, the so-called Grand Order of Successful Entrepreneurs whose members include Vanguard Ventures founder and Rice University professor Jack Gill and Rod Canion, founder of Compaq Computer.
Ultimately, using technology to manage the data deluge in health care will mean better care for cancer patients. Oncologists in a typical private practice do not have time to evaluate the data that’s now available to assess all of possible drug combinations or which clinical trials would best serve patients. MolecularMatch, does that work instead, in effect creating customized treatment plans for each patient, Welsh says.
“Instead of doing three rounds of chemo first, we deal with the mutations upfront,” he added. “It’s a better way to treat patients.”