With New Partnership, Propeller Health To Make Inhaler From Scratch

Propeller Health knows a thing or two about inhalers.

The Madison, WI-based startup, launched in 2010, has for years made electronic devices that encase or snap onto inhalers made by large pharma companies such as Germany-based Boehringer Ingelheim and U.K.-based GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK). Propeller’s Internet-connected devices are designed to help asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients manage their conditions by providing caregivers data, including when and where patients are taking their medications.

Now, for the first time, Propeller will have a hand in building a connected inhaler from the ground up. The startup has partnered with Aptar Pharma, part of Crystal Lake, IL-based AptarGroup (NYSE: ATR), to develop a connected metered-dose inhaler (MDI), says Propeller co-founder and CEO David Van Sickle.

“It’s essentially a drug delivery platform that resembles MDIs and operates just like them, but now is digitally native,” Van Sickle says. “It has built into it the information-creating aspects that our add-on devices have had in the past.”

According to a press release announcing the partnership, MDIs are the world’s most popular type of respiratory medicine inhaler, with more than 600 million units produced in 2015. These inhalers propel aerosol-based medicine, such as albuterol, into the lungs.

Van Sickle says that Aptar manufactures and supplies components—including valves, stems, and housings—for most MDI models on the market. Pierre Carlotti, a vice president in Aptar Pharma’s prescription division, says in an e-mail that the company has more than 30 years of experience developing and manufacturing inhalers and components for treating asthma and COPD.

Under the partnership, Propeller will integrate sensors and some of its other electronics with those components, as well as Aptar’s electronic dose counter. “It’s an amalgam of hardware,” Van Sickle says.

In July 2012, Propeller received FDA clearance to market its system—which combines sensors, mobile apps, analytics, and patient-specific feedback—for use with respiratory medications delivered via MDIs.

Carlotti says that Aptar’s interest in working with Propeller stemmed from the latter company’s having proven the clinical value of connected medications for asthma and COPD.

“Propeller Health was the ideal partner given their expertise and experience in developing elegant software, coupled with strong data analytics and service capabilities to patients, healthcare providers, and payers,” Carlotti says.

Van Sickle stresses that neither Aptar nor Propeller is a drugmaker. As a result, after the two companies have built the new inhaler, they’ll license it to a respiratory pharma firm that will bring the device to market in combination with its medicine, he says.

But first, Aptar and Propeller will need to prove their device works. The inhaler is expected to enter clinical studies later this year, according to the release.

The eventual involvement of a third-party drugmaker marks another way in which Propeller’s relationship with Aptar is different from its partnerships struck with GSK and Boehringer Ingelheim in the last two years. Propeller agreed to develop and manufacture custom sensors for their inhalers. Rather than MDIs, those two companies focus more on the dry powder (GSK) and soft mist (BI) inhaler varieties.

Propeller, Aptar, and any drugmakers they bring on won’t be the only ones developing connected inhalers. Two competitors Van Sickle says are on his radar are Novartis (NYSE: NVS), which last month said it teamed with Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) on a project aimed at treating COPD with connected inhalers; and Adherium, which announced a similar agreement with AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN) last July. Another company in the space is Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (NYSE: TEVA), which in September acquired Gecko Health Innovations, up to that point an early-stage competitor to Propeller, says a spokeswoman for the startup.

Developing the new inhaler in tandem with Aptar and getting it through clinical … Next Page »

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Jeff Buchanan is the editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email: jbuchanan@xconomy.com Follow @_jeffbuchanan

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