Corengi Seeks to Bring Clinical Trial Information Into the World of Web 2.0
Punch the search term “Type 2 diabetes” into the main public website for clinical trials, and you’ll find more than 1,000 ongoing studies. That might be a wealth of information if you are an endocrinologist looking to get up to speed on the latest and greatest therapies. But to patients, it’s mostly a vast wilderness of jargon.
Ryan Luce looked at the landscape and saw an opportunity to do something useful, and build a company. This week he and co-founder Eliot Cohen are taking the wraps off their new startup, Seattle-based Corengi, which is attempting to make the online world of clinical trial information a lot less intimidating. If Corengi has played its cards right, it might even help drugmakers solve one of their more vexing problems—finding enough patients willing to enroll in study.
Corengi, which is short for clinical options research engine, is getting started by trying to bring some Web 2.0 interactive sensibility to a really deep pool of data in the clinicaltrials.gov site maintained by the National Institutes of Health. There’s plenty of opportunity here, given that an estimated 25 million people in the U.S. have diabetes and the domestic market for diabetes treatments is worth more than $10 billion a year. Those numbers are only expected to climb, as incidence is booming in connection with the national obesity epidemic.
Every major pharmaceutical company has drug development programs in the works, and all of them complain about how hard it is to recruit enough patients fast enough into clinical trials so they can find out how safe and effective their new treatments really are. If Corengi can create a central platform where patients share experiences and tips from clinical trials, and it gets some buzz, then Corengi figures it should have a targeted audience that pharma companies will pay to reach.
“If you can make it easier for people to understand trials, then you can enlarge the pool,” Luce says. “Pharma companies simply can’t get enough patients through the door to participate. There’s a real business problem there. If you help recruit patients, there’s a market there.”
Luce brings some relevant experience to this task. He’s a scientist by training, who spent most of the past decade working at Seattle-based NexCura, a Web resource for cancer information that was acquired by Thomson Reuters and eventually US Oncology. He left earlier this year to start Corengi.
The idea at Corengi is to help patients navigate the vast sea of clinical trials, and their arcane eligibility rules, through asking people to complete a 20-point questionnaire. If you are a newly diagnosed Type 2 diabetes patient, or know your score on a common measure of blood sugar control, this will help weed out all the potential trials that aren’t right for you. It also sifts through trials based on how close the center is to your home. Once patients have entered their questionnaire, they can get e-mail alerts when a relevant trial opens up in their area. (You can see a 59-second video clip on how this is supposed to work at the Corengi site).
That’s the back end work, but the potentially bigger deal is in creating a platform that patients can run with themselves, like Wikipedia. That means letting patients write posts on basic logistics to fellow patients, about whether parking is cheap and easy near the clinical trial site, how many times you have to go see the doctor per month, and how long it really requires you be away from work. “We want to allow the community to engage and educate patients,” Luce says.
Ah, but clinical trials are a whole lot more regulated than, say, consumer electronics, where people can say whatever they want about a TV online. Giving patients the tools to easily share information about clinical trials can be a recipe for trouble. Patients who enroll in a study, for example, could start raving about how much benefit they think they are getting from an experimental drug before a study is over, and therefore injecting bias into the minds of other patients and researchers before the proper statistical analysis can be done. There’s also the possibility of more underhanded tactics, like pharma sales people or investors attempting to pose as patients to extract information from them during studies, or even to try to manipulate the outcome one way or another through bias.
Luce acknowledges that there are legit concerns about how clinical trial information gets communicated online, and says his company is developing mechanisms to police bad activity. But he also says the cat is already out of the bag. People can, and already do, make postings on Facebook about how they are enrolled in certain trials, and got some kind of positive or negative result. The difference is that this information is scattered far and wide over the web, and isn’t really aggregated in one place, Luce says.
“People already do that types of communication, and it frustrates pharma companies. Not everybody will love it,” he says.
Getting buzz and users is key for Corengi in its early days. At least one patient advocacy group has shown interest, Luce says. Once some users start coming in and populating the site, then it will be time to start talking with pharmaceutical companies about targeted ads to help recruit patients into their own specific trials, Luce says.
So far, Luce has put in about $10,000 of his own money, and he says he has commitments from angel investors for more than $100,000. If things go well with Type 2 diabetes, then the company could start building similar sites for other common conditions with lots of ongoing trials—rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, to name a few.
The size of the market opportunity seems like mostly guesswork, but Luce said he estimates that big drugmakers spend $500 million a year on recruiting patients into clinical trials. An interactive web resource is only likely to capture a small slice of that pie, when includes the ads you see on buses, in newspapers, and through Google keyword searches. Luce doesn’t sound like he has any delusions of grandeur.
“My goal is to create something useful for patients that makes a meaningful difference in the industry,” Luce says. “I’m not trying to create the next Facebook here, but I want it to be helpful to patients and sustainable as a business.”