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ADVANCE Perspective: Respiratory Views

The Inhaler Hacking Arms Race

Published December 4, 2015 8:02 AM by ADVANCE for Respiratory Care & Sleep Medicine

By Tamer Abouras

There are many, many blog entries and articles written daily which begin something like this: “There’s no getting around the fact that we’re currently living in the age of … [insert modern buzzword here].”

Probably everyone is guilty of it at some point — waxing poetic when levying a kind of commentary on the state of things is almost instinctive. And so although this is by no means a definitive statement, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that, increasingly, there is an emphasis on having technological aids more intertwined into our daily lives.

SEE ALSO: Intelligent Asthma Inhalers

In the push to “hack” everything — including your general health — we see products that can mine output data down to its most granular levels and provide an accurate, detailed report on our daily productivity. The Fitbit, for instance, tracks our steps.

In that vein, it was inevitable that something as common as an asthma inhaler would be given the “smart” treatment and, as these sorts of innovations go, smart inhalers are certainly among the more practical ones that have been developed.

ADVANCE has covered this topic previously, noting that smart inhalers produce lots of data that can give patients a better understanding of what causes their symptoms, as well as when and how they can best avoid those triggers.

As Chris Hogg, Propeller Health's chief operating officer, put it, “The data can be used to understand the disease better, including how frequently the patient uses a rescue inhaler, what the triggers are and when they happen.”

According to Rob Matheson of MIT News, Gecko Health (which was acquired recently by Teva Pharmaceuticals) developed a system called CareTRx, which features “ … a small cap equipped with sensors and onboard memory that fits over the canister of most metered-dose inhalers. When a user presses down to deliver a dose, the onboard memory stores that data. Then, when the user is near a mobile device, the cap automatically connects and syncs to the cloud and to the product’s app. Lights around the cap also illuminate when it’s time for a dose.”

Of course the next stage in the startup life cycle — especially these days with so many purporting to hack and disrupt so many things (asthma in this case) — is that the success of these upstart companies who have brought the technology to market catches the attention of the industry’s bigger businesses.

In addition to Gecko’s acquisition by Teva, Propeller announced a deal this week that it’s reached with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to create a custom sensor for the latter’s Ellipta inhaler. Using the sensor tech "will advance our understanding of disease and inform our decision-making in the development of new medicines," Dave Allen, GSK's senior vice president of respiratory R&D, said in a statement.

What’s more, with Gecko going to Teva, Propeller striking a deal with GSK  — having already cut one with Boehringer Ingelheim two years ago — and Symbicort-maker AstraZeneca getting to work with Adherium, it seems that the proverbial “moment” for smart inhalers has come.

With an arms race of Big Pharma companies rushing to invest in this market, it’s safe to assume that smart inhalers and their reams of collected data will be here to stay — that is, until some disruptive new creation emerges to better hack our health and shifts the paradigm again.  

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