Your inhaler's watching you: drugmakers race for smart devices

Wed Jul 20, 2016 8:51am EDT
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By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters) - Makers of inhalers to treat asthma and chronic lung disease are racing to develop a new generation of smart devices with sensors to monitor if patients are using their puffers properly.

Linked wirelessly to the cloud, the gadgets are part of a medical "Internet of Things" that promises improved adherence, or correct use of the medication, and better health outcomes. They may also hold the key to company profits in an era of increasingly tough competition.

Drugmakers believe giving patients and doctors the ability to check inhaler use in this way could be a big help in proving the value of their medicines to governments and insurers, though they need to tread carefully on data privacy.

GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Novartis are all chasing the opportunity via deals with device firms including U.S.-based Propeller Health and Australian-listed Adherium, as well as technology players like Qualcomm.

Over the past half century, inhalers have revolutionized care by delivering medicines direct into the lungs and avoiding the serious side effects seen with older oral drugs. But getting patients to take their medication correctly remains a challenge.

"Technique is critical. You might have the world's best blockbuster drug in an inhaler, but if patients don't use it properly they won't get the benefits," said Omar Usmani, a consultant physician at Imperial College London.

With asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affecting about 500 million people worldwide, the opportunity is large, and reducing serious attacks by improving adherence could save $19 billion a year in U.S. healthcare costs alone, Goldman Sachs analysts estimated in a report last year.

Usmani envisages a future of high-tech inhalers that not only record doses but also use gyroscopic and acoustic sensors to check medicine flow, while monitoring the environment for allergens such as pollen. All that data can be fed to remote computer servers known as the cloud.   Continued...

A man uses an inhaler at his house in Beijing, China November 2, 2014.  REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo