About 1 million Australians suffer from cardiovascular disease, but its the half of those who forget to take their cocktail of medications that Bupa hopes to target with its first foray into drug development.
Bupa may be best known in Australia as the $21 billion private health insurance industry's second largest player, where it jostles with Medibank Private for the market leading position. But it is also the country's largest aged care provider and operates a range of other services like dental clinics, optometrists and health checks for the Immigration department.
Now the British operator's Australian arm will embark on pharmaceutical development for the first time in the non-profit's company's history.
Bupa has established a joint venture with medical research group The George Institute for Global Health to develop a four-in-one "polypill" for people who have suffered previous strokes or heart attacks.
For those patients the standard prescription to try and prevent a further cardiovascular problem is taking four medications that together lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and make blood less sticky.
The cost to the economy of caring for cardiovascular disease patients each year is about $18 billion and this is made worse by patients who don't comply with their medication regimes. However early trials of Polypills show an improvement in compliance of about 40 per cent, Bupa's chief medical officer Paul Bates said.
Bupa will invest $4.5 million into the SmartGenRx joint venture company to fund a clinical trail of the pill. If the trial is successful, the group will pursue deals with large drug companies to support sales and distribution.
Dr Bates and Bupa's health insurance managing director Dwayne Crombie will sit on the SmartGenRx board. Private health insurers have shown a great appetite to play a bigger role in the health of their members, in order to keep them out of hospital and contain how much they pay out for care.
However Dr Bates said SmartGenRx was "not a health insurance play" and would not be linked to Bupa's health fund.
"We want to make it as broadly available as possible," he said. "We would want to launch this in Australia initially and then into the UK and then make the product globally available."
Drug development is an inherently risky business and Dr Bates admitted it is new territory for Bupa. "I won't deny this raised a few eyebrows," he said of pitching it to management and the board.
All of the four medications planned to be included in the polypill are now "off patent", which means they are made relatively cheaply by generic manufacturers.
Although this has brought the price down, The George Institute's principal director Stephen MacMahon said the negative consequence is it has also stifled innovation.
The George approached large drug companies about partnering before going to Bupa but it "didn't fit their modus operandi" of finding new drugs that they can patent. Nor did the idea attract generic manufacturers either.
"We thought we needed something in the middle ground for innovation, but where the innovation can be about how better we deliver the drugs we already have," Professor MacMahon said. "That's why we needed a partner that... wasn't necessarily in the mould of looking for products that are going to maximise profit through long term patent protection... [We thought] if we're really serious we have to be involved in it ourselves."
Read more: http://www.afr.com/business/health/pharmaceuticals/bupa-moves-into-drug-development-with-fourinone-polypill-20160610-gpgjyf#ixzz4BanZut9G
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