Drug Tests Draw From Travel Site to Fix Industry Flawby
New tool matches clinical trials with relevant patients
Pfizer, Novartis endorse project to speed up drug research
Pablo Graiver aims to make signing up for a drug study as easy as booking a flight on the Web.
The 47-year-old Argentinian entrepreneur, a former executive at the airfare search engine kayak.com, has designed a new tool that draws from the travel industry to match scientists looking to test experimental medicines with patients suffering from more than a dozen diseases. It pools information patients previously had to piece together from Google searches, doctors and a complicated government-run website.
Pfizer Inc., Novartis AG and other drugmakers endorse the project because it disrupts a model so inefficient it’s hobbled pharmaceutical research for years. As many as 90 percent of clinical trials fail to meet the time frame they set to enroll enough patients, bloating costs and delaying access to some potentially life-saving drugs.
“We are transforming the way patients find and take part in medical research so that new drugs and life-saving treatments can reach the millions who need them, faster,” Graiver said in an interview.
Easy to navigate and populated by friendly Lego-like characters, www.trialreach.com aims to become a one-stop search tool for patients that cuts through medical jargon. It has the potential to rattle various industry players, who are watching whether the new system catches on.
For now, London-based TrialReach’s search tool can only help patients sift through U.S. clinical trials for diabetes. Another 14 diseases are likely to be added to the database by the end of the year, including Alzheimer’s, lung cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.
Gravier, who helped build ventures in online retail, travel and media, says he first heard about drug research bottlenecks from Jessica Mann, a cardiologist and close family friend. Mann shared her frustrations over a glass of wine in his London garden on a warm July day seven years ago. She was well acquainted with the problem, having spent more than 15 years working in the pharmaceutical industry, including developing clinical programs for Novartis’s blockbuster blood-pressure medicine Diovan.
Graiver recalls asking Mann if a centralized marketplace could help, much in the way Kayak and Kelkoo.com, a price-comparison site bought by Yahoo! Inc., brought ease and transparency for customers.
"At Kelkoo, we needed to connect shoppers with retailers. At Kayak, you connect travelers with airlines," Graiver said. "And here, it’s exactly the same thing: you have patients and researchers. I asked, ‘So why is no one connecting them?’"
Graiver and Mann continued the dialog over twice-weekly Skype sessions, educating each other about their fields of expertise. Four months later, Graiver formed TrialReach. Mann joined him as co-founder and chief medical officer in February 2009. They have lured others from the health-care industry, including Tom Krohn who led Eli Lilly & Co.’s Clinical Open Innovation team, and raised about $20 million in venture capital.
Together they began creating a site that restructures the catalog of studies logged on clinicaltrials.gov, the primary industry database, cutting out unnecessary details and medical jargon and changing the presentation to make it reader-friendly.
This year, they added an algorithm designed to generate questions that narrow down the trials patients are eligible for based on criteria such as age, medical history and location, acting as a funnel that Graiver says takes “hundreds or even thousands of options down to one.”
He found one major difference with the business of selling airplane and train tickets: many customers just don’t know about clinical trials. To gain visibility, he is partnering with health websites that draw millions of patient eyeballs, such as Healthline and Sharecare.
Pfizer has been on board since 2014, when the drugmaker, along with rivals Novartis and Lilly, dropped plans to develop their own open software program to help patients find clinical studies and decided to hand over their work to Graiver instead.
"If we can be more efficient, we could move more medicines through the pipeline," Craig Lipset, head of clinical innovation at New York-based Pfizer, said in a telephone interview. “It’s the rare study, the outlier, that comes along and meets the patient recruitment objectives." Some take as long as two years just to find the right people.
Pfizer declined to comment on the specifics of how the company is currently working with TrialReach.
TrialReach doesn’t cost patients anything. It gets paid by clients -- drugmakers, academic research groups and companies contracted to run clinical trials -- when it connects a person to a relevant study. The company says it has commercial agreements with a majority of the world’s 25 largest drugmakers and clinical-trial contractors.
TrialReach’s model could threaten patient-recruitment specialists such as Acurian Inc., which service drugmakers and contract-research organizations that conduct their trials by helping them find patients.
Parexel International Corp., a U.S. contractor whose clients include Pfizer and Merck & Co., has opted to use the service as an additional way to find patients. Rival Quintiles Transnational Holdings Inc. declined to comment for this story.
Acurian says TrialReach is simply one more avenue to find patients. "Any single-threaded approach has limitations" as opposed to a mix of strategies, Roger Smith, senior vice president and general manager of Acurian, said by e-mail.
Parexel won’t stop tapping patient advocacy groups, online patient chatrooms and other recruitment channels just because it uses TrialReach, according to Paul Evans, head of global site solutions. "There is no silver bullet," he said. "This isn’t about doing one thing well, it’s about doing 100 things well."