Google Launches Health Research App Focusing on Respiratory Illnesses


  • Google has launched the Google Health Studies app for Android phones with the initial focus on respiratory diseases such as COVID-19. The app is now available in the play store
  • Google allied with researchers from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children Hospital for the first study, which will be open to adults in the US and will focus on identifying how these types of illnesses evolve in communities and differ across risk factors such as age, and activities
  • The app provides a platform for researchers to reach a large & diverse population to better understand human health while providing the public with greater opportunities to contribute to medical research

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Novartis taps smartpatient for app to support wet AMD patients

German digital health company smartpatient is adding a new section of its MyTherapy app providing information on wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness.

The Munich-based company is launching the educational See What’s Next app in collaboration with Novartis, which sells the wet AMD medicines Beovu (brolucizumab) and Lucentis (ranibizumab), and has also been a big proponent of digital health technologies.

Wet AMD affects more than 20 million people worldwide, and is the top cause of blindness in people aged over 65. It develops when abnormal blood vessels grow into the macula of the eye. These vessels leak blood or fluid which leads to scarring of the macula and rapid loss of central vision.

While injecting drugs like Beovu, Lucentis and Bayer/Regeneron’s rival Eylea (aflibercept) into the eye can slow down the progressive loss of vision associated with the disease – particularly if wet AMD is diagnosed early – careful adherence to therapy is critical for treatment to work effectively.

The new, free of charge section makes tailored information about wet AMD available to the approximately 20 million people worldwide with wet AMD along with tools to help them stay on track with treatment and in communication with their doctors.

“Non-adherence is a challenge in most health conditions, but in few are consequences as direct and severe as in wet AMD,” says Sebastian Gaede, smartpatient’s chief executive.

See What’s Next is available to patients through their ophthalmologists, according to smartpatient, which has co-created the wet AMD app with Novartis, and will roll out initially in Italy and Spain with additional markets planned in the coming months.

MyTherapy has already been downloaded by millions of people around with world, and has more than 80,000 ratings on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store – which smartpatient claims makes it the world’s fastest-growing disease management app.

Novartis and Lucentis marketing partner Roche have been battling Bayer in the wet AMD market for years, but the company hopes to make headway with recent launch Beovu as patent protection for Lucentis is expiring this year in the US and in 2022 in Europe.

Novartis earned $2 billion from Lucentis last year, while Roche – which sells it in the US – made $1.8 billion from the drug. Eylea was the market leader with Regeneron recording US sales of $4.6 billion in 2019, while Bayer posted $2.5 billion.

Beovu hasn’t really taken off yet, with sales of just over $150 million in the first nine months of the year, impacted by the pandemic but also because there have been reported of patients experiencing retinal vasculitis after being treated with the drug following its launch in the US in 2019.

Market research company GlobalData still thinks Beovu will become a blockbuster with peak revenues of $3.6 billion in 2028, when it expects the total wet AMD market in eight top pharma markets – the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK, Japan, China, and Australia – to reach $18.7 billion.

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CLM tests drug plus digital combo for high blood pressure

UK biotech Closed Loop Medicine (CLM) has started recruiting patients into a trial that will test whether a drug linked to a smartphone app can improve treatment for hypertension.

The new study is specifically designed to include patients shielding from COVID-19, to see how well they can manage their blood pressure in a home environment and explore whether having hypertension raises the risk of severe disease.

CLM’s programme – CLM-HT01 – combines new formulations of already-registered drugs for high blood pressure with a digital therapeutic app, and earlier this year was awarded a second grant from Innovate UK for a clinical study at Queen Mary University of London that was unfortunately delayed by the pandemic.

Lead investigator Dr David Collier and his team at Queen Mary have now re-designed the study so that no in-hospital visits are required, with all interactions between patients and clinical staff carried out remotely.

Called Personal COVID BP, the rejigged trial is much larger and will involve up to 1,000 patients, with an initial 200-subject group given drug therapy while using an app to monitor blood pressure, as well as any potential side effects.

The main aim of the study is the development of a combination product that will have the potential to save thousands of lives through fewer heart attacks and strokes, says the company. At the same time, the digital app will also monitor COVID-19 symptoms in a larger group of people with hypertension.

During the early stages of the pandemic, researchers suggested there may be a link between COVID-19 mortality and high blood pressure, and a Nature paper published in May that analysed 17 million electronic health records reinforced the connection.

That study also pointed to an elevated risk of COVID-19-related death for Black and South Asian people and those from deprived areas, as well as other factors such as obesity and diabetes.

“In lockdown the CLM development team worked tirelessly to enable COVID-19 symptom tracking in addition to the existing hypertension monitoring features of the app,” said Collier.

The main thrust of the trial will however be to put the drug + digital approach through its paces in a real-world setting and see if it can optimise treatment.

“Some of the drugs we use are great at preventing heart attacks and strokes, but frequently cause unwanted side-effects, something this trial sets out to address,” according to Collier.

“We hope that through this study we can not only demonstrate that one size does not fit all, but that by using technology in this combined way, we can personalise treatment for the individual at a population scale.”

Earlier this year, CLM also formed a partnership with clinical trial specialist Curebase to explore the relationship between high blood pressure and COVID-19 in the US.

Under the terms of that agreement, Curebase has set up a clinical trial platform – called CURE-19 – that is being used to run at-home COVID-19 studies, and the first results from that effort could be ready this year.

CLM is making its app available on the CURE-19 platform, and the symptoms, drug regimen and blood pressure data it harvests – once de-identified – will be placed in a database and used to look for relationships with disease severity.

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Pilot study backs Kaia Health app for back pain relief

An app developed by Kaia Health to help people suffering from back pain who may not want to take painkillers has shown its worth again in a study conducted with a health benefit plan in the US.

The pilot study of the app – which combines physical therapy, relaxation exercises and medical information to help back pain sufferers manage their condition – showed it was able to reduce self-reported pain and sleep quality.

It features computer-vision technology that locks onto 23 key points on the body to track movements accurately, allowing the app to provide advice on the correct movements and exercises, and is currently being used by around 450,000 users.

Kaia conducted the pilot with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a group of companies providing health benefit plans to around three million people in New England and other areas of the US.

Three employers that use Harvard Pilgrim’s health plans for their workers – the City of Lynn municipality, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and retailer Jordan’s Furniture – made the app available to staff with chronic back pain.

At the start of the study, 80% of those enrolled were reporting pain that was impairing their ability to move freely.

An interim look at the data reveals that subjects reporting the highest levels of back pain at the start of the study (more than four on a 10-point scale) saw a 40% reduction in pain levels and a 58% increase in sleep quality since the start of the pilot.

Looking at the whole study group, the average pain reduction was 35%, with a 59% improvement in sleep. All told, 92% of those enrolled said they were satisfied with the app.

The pilot study follows a large-scale clinical trial of the app published last month in the Journal of Pain Research, which showed improvements in physical and mental symptoms in people with chronic lower back pain.

Lower back pain is one of the top causes of disability around the world, and according to a 2018 report in The Lancet accounts for 189 million lost working days and $62.4 billion in lost productivity in a year.

Kaia maintains that the current burden of COVID-19 is negatively impacting the ability of patients with chronic conditions including musculoskeletal pain to self-manage their conditions due to physical distancing, isolation, and complications in accessing healthcare services.

One of the primary reasons for participating in the pilot was to see if the app could reduce painkiller use among its members, particularly opioids, according to Harvard Pilgrim’s chief medical officer Michael Sherman.

“By providing access to non-opioid approaches to managing painful conditions, Harvard Pilgrim is seeking to help its members avoid prescriptions for opioids, which we know can lead to substance use disorder in some individuals,” he said.

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Sensyne Health launches diabetes app in the UK

UK digital health company Sensyne Health has launched a new smartphone app to help people across the diabetes spectrum manage their condition.

The app – called DBm-Health – can help users to monitor their blood glucose levels and send readings, notes and medication information to their healthcare practitioner to assess remotely.

It is a follow-on to Sensyne’s GDm-Health product, which is used for remote monitoring of diabetes during pregnancy and was recently made available for free to all NHS Trusts in the UK for one year to assist with monitoring and managing this high-risk group during the COVID-19 pandemic.

GDm-Health has been a success since launch, says the company, which claims a market share of 47% across all NHS Trusts in England. That has prompted the company to accelerate the roll-out of DBm-Health for the wider diabetic community.

Other uses for DBm Health include cancer patients with pre-diabetes, who are known to be at elevated risk of developing full-blown diabetes if they are given high-dose steroid treatment.

It could also help patients with diabetes who are shielding in order to reduce their risk of coronavirus infection – which is important as diabetics are thought to be more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 than non-diabetic people.

There is also evidence suggesting COVID-19 may trigger the onset of diabetes in healthy people and cause poor control for existing diabetes sufferers. Sensyne recently launched a web-based app, CVm-Health, to assist individuals in monitoring coronavirus symptoms.

The new app will be piloted in three NHS Trusts over the next few months, to see if it provides the promised health-economic and operational benefits, and is also due to be launched in the US later this year as part of Sensyne’s push for overseas expansion.

Sensyne says that unlike other diabetes apps, DBm-Health provides a patient’s clinician with information on their status and whether any additional treatment may be required.

Managing the 3.9 million people living with diabetes costs the NHS around £9.8 billion a year, according to the charity Diabetes UK. There are also more than 34 million people with diabetes in the US, adding $327 billion to the cost of healthcare.

In light of the coronavirus crisis, the NHS has moved rapidly to offer remote consultations, particularly for those with co-morbidities such as diabetes which puts a person at particular risk of severe infection.

“We are responding to the urgent need of NHS Trusts for new digital technologies to optimally care for patients with diabetes,” commented Dr Lucy Mackillop, Sensyne’s chief medical officer.

“DBm-Health will help ensure the highest quality information is securely available to clinicians from patients who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and are advised to stay at home during the pandemic,” she added.

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UK’s second go at a contact tracing app heads for pilot study

After ditching its home-grown attempt at a coronavirus contact-tracing app for smartphones, the UK is ready to start pilot trials of a second version based on a platform developed by Apple and Google.

The new NHS Test and Trace app is intended to be used as an add-on to the controversial national and local contact-tracing service, and was due to start initial trials yesterday on the Isle of Wight and among a group of NHS volunteers.

Residents of COVID-19 hotspot Newham in London will also be offered the chance to participate in the pilot a little later, said the government.

The new app uses the decentralised Apple/Google model of relying on smartphones detecting each other, helping to maintain public privacy, even though the government has previously said the approach wouldn’t allow it to respond effectively to localised COVID-19 outbreaks.

It logs the time and distance a user has spent near anyone else, regardless of whether they are known to each other, and can raise an alert if one of them later tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The earlier NHS app would have been based on a centralised database of registered participants, but sparked concerns about infringement of civil liberties before it was abandoned.

The new app generates a random ID for a person’s device, allowing test and trace to function. The IDs “rotate”, according to the government, and that would prevent them from being used to track individual devices.

There are still concerns about how well the new app will work in practice, and the government says it is still working to improve the way phones detect each other using Bluetooth, and reduce the number of false alerts that would direct people to quarantine without due cause.

“The performance of individual devices varies wildly and there are currently variances in how Android and iOS report risk, but the experiments showed that the modelling was broadly correct,” according to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is contributing to the app’s development.

“The team continue to work with Apple and Google to improve the contact detection reliability,” it said.

One issue is reportedly that in order to preserve privacy, the Apple/Google model doesn’t allow access to certain data on Bluetooth signal strength, according to a BBC report.

That means it can’t use a technique developed by researchers at the University of Oxford and Turing Institute in the UK that can give a better indication of proximity, it says.

The team behind the new app say they hope to get the accuracy rate high enough for widespread roll-out of the quarantine alert system by the end of the year.

Aside from its main contact-tracing function, the app will also inform users of the level of coronavirus risk in their postcode, and allow people to scan a QR code when they check into public venues like restaurants and pubs. They can then be alerted automatically if an outbreak is linked to that venue.

Other features include a symptom checker, a booking system for diagnostic tests, and a timer for those advised to self-isolate.

News of the revised app was welcomed by the Health Foundation charity, but its director of data – Adam Steventon – said the government must ensure that the trials are properly evaluated and that findings are shared.

“The ultimate test for the app is whether it increases the proportion of contacts that are traced by the Test and Trace service. Currently only 79% of people contacted by NHS Test and Trace are able to give information about their contacts, and only 75% of contacts can be reached,” he said.

The Health Foundation is concerned that false alerts from the app might impact more severely on certain populations, for example those unable to work from home.

It also wants reassurance that it has  been designed with the most vulnerable people in society in mind, such as those living in poorer areas, older people and some in minority ethnic groups.

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