Under the skin of innovation

LEO’s Innovation Lab is working at arm’s length from the main company to encourage original thinking and develop cutting edge tech for dermatology. We caught up with chief medical officer John Zibert at eyeforpharma Barcelona 2019 to learn more about the philosophy behind the Lab and how he sees the future of digital in pharma.

How do you personally define innovation?

One of the key features as we see it is that innovation is not just something you build on top of existing solutions. It’s not about just using the buzzword ‘disruption’. It’s more about thinking differently and trying to identify problems and solutions that fit those problems.

Being innovative is also building something that patients or doctors are actually using on a regular basis. Many of the medical apps out there aren’t being used by patients or prescribed by doctors, because they’re not solving a problem. They’re just adding value to a product. That’s incremental innovation. If you really want to do something that is helping patients, you need to think in a radically different way and you need to be able to invest in high-risk projects.

I hate to use the buzzword, but my impression is that LEO Innovation Lab is positioning itself as an internal disruptor for LEO. How do you ensure that you work seamlessly with the existing business, or is the point to not work seamlessly with the existing business at all?

It’s more the latter. It’s more about exploration, and we’re also very open to working with other industries. We cannot solve these problems without partnerships.

There are so many apps available for some conditions now that doctors and patients will have no idea what to choose. We need to go into consolidation mode and figure out what it is exactly that the patient and doctor are going to need despite being on a topical, on a pill, or on an injectable. It doesn’t matter – it should be the same thing that we’re building.

That’s what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to build solutions that have nothing to do with products as such but are linking into problems that the patients and doctors are facing.

Would you say the Innovation Lab is a digital-focused arm of the business or is it any innovation, not just digital?

I would say it’s mainly digital. But we have also just spun out a company called HelloSkin that’s using a digital platform to find out exactly what needs the patient has and then customise a specific product to each patient. That’s precision medicine thinking with a physical product.

We’ve tried to explore several different things, but I would say our current focus today is mainly in the digital world, because that is the future as we see it.

Do you think that takes you to a place where in some areas you don’t have a pharmacological product, it’s just other interventions?

I think that’s a pull from the patients. I would say that if we asked patients, the majority of them would use over-the-counter products in combination with the existing medical products – or, due to safety reasons, they would often rather go to the over-the-counter products than prescribed products. In particular, in diseases such as eczema, parents would rather use a cream that is on the borderline of being a pharmaceutical product than actually using a pharmaceutical product.

How does what you do fit in with the LEO Science & Tech Hub?

The Science & Tech Hub is focusing on drugs and molecules, and methodology with more rigorous endpoints. For example, they would not use a mobile phone to take pictures because the resolution is not good enough. They would be more likely to invest in something like focal microscopy to try to take the pictures and see what’s happening under the skin on a molecular level.

You could also call it a sandbox, but more for molecules. They’ll help small start-ups to do in vivo studies that can prepare them for first-in-human, and then they will maybe do the first phase one trial in humans together with them in partnership. They will also explore technologies that can be adopted and actually understand diseases better.

We’re more on the side of looking at, for example, how we can identify real world evidence from patients on whether a product works or if a disease is deteriorating by looking at passive data collected on the phone, by looking at voice patterns and so forth. We are more about chipping into the daily life of the patient, and these new biomarkers. Some of the projects that we’re looking into are actually trying to look at the behaviour you can extract from phones and correlate that with the images that the patient is taking from their device. We try to correlate those two to see if we can actually identify disease patterns.

I don’t think any patient will be able to afford an optical tomography in a camera phone or device in the near future. I know that Samsung is now trying to launch a consumer-directed device for approximately $10,000, but it’s still a lot of money. Yes, maybe for high-risk cancer patients it’s relevant, but it would be even cooler if a high-risk cancer patient could just snap a picture and then get an idea of if there’s something that is getting worse or not. Or if a person with an autoimmune disease such as eczema or psoriasis would be able to track their disease patterns on the phone based on their use of the device.

The healthcare professional would also be able to take those data points, put them into a cloud, and into a dashboard, and they would be able to live monitor the patient and also identify the patients that they really need to focus on at that moment.

I think that’s the future from a consumer point of view.

Do you have any other predictions for how the sector might evolve in the near future?

One of the things that I want to highlight is the fact that the interaction between digital devices and the clinical practice and the patients is still in its first wave. There are still very few technologies that really add value.

The one that can actually unlock this potential and figure out what kind of problems could be solved commonly across patients and doctors will be the one with the highest success.

That’s why we at LEO Innovation Lab are moving into the field of the most evident problem, and that is the consultation between the doctor and the patient, and trying to help them understand each other much better. We believe that will be a key area moving forward.

About the Interviewee

John Zibert is chief medical officer, medical director at LEO Innovation Lab and has been with LEO Pharma since 2009. Prior to his current role, John’s positions included head of scientific affairs region EU5+ and global medical advisor at the company.

About the Author

George Underwood

George is part of the senior editorial team at pharmaphorum, previously working at PharmaTimes and prior to this at Pharmafocus. He is a trained journalist, with a degree from Bournemouth University, with specialisms including R&D, digital and M&A.

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