Last week, I spent a little bit of time at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, a nearly-thirty-year-old annual gathering that's become "the health care industry's premier financial event, giving more than 330 companies a chance to make formal pitches to institutional investors." Due to a houseful of sickies at home, I wasn't able to attend as many presentations as I'd have liked, but I did catch a few of the "biggies," including the talk by Medtronic CEO William Hawkins.
As a patient, it is hard not to bite your lip at this event, where most of the talk is about market growth, dividends and return value to shareholders. But I tried to stay focused on picking out bits of information that mattered in patients' lives. And one thing that struck me was the whole issue of developing patch pumps (tubeless/wireless insulin pumps) for people with diabetes.
With all this talk of market-leading innovation, why is it that only one small company, Insulet out of the Boston area, has managed to bring a viable patch pump product to market? The OmniPod system's been on the US market since May 2007, and will soon be available in 11 other countries, including China.
Meanwhile, Medtronic's been talking about introducing their own tubeless pumping system for what, at least two years now? Hawkins confirmed in his talk last week that we won't be seeing theirs until at least FY11, not FY10 (this year) as originally planned.
"They just can't get the thing built," said David Kliff of Diabetic Investor, arguably the best-informed financial analyst focusing on the diabetes industry — and a very outspoken guy! (I sat next to Kliff during the presentation; below are a few of Hawkin's key slides)
Medtronic has also frequently previewed its "next-generation" Paradigm pump, that's supposed to blow Animas' designs out of the water. That one's apparently not coming now until FY11 (or possibly FY12?) either.
As far as patch pumps go, Medtronic is certainly not alone. There's a whole laundry list of companies working on tubeless pumps, yet not one of them has managed to bring anything at all to market yet:
- CeQur out of Boston, developing a push-button pump for Type 2 diabetics (pictured)
- Calibra Medical, building the Finesse: delivers bolus insulin or pramlitide
- Cellnovo, with a wireless touchscreen pump in the works for at least four years
- Valeritas, working on the V-Go: a once-daily disposable insulin delivery system for Type 2 diabetes
- Medingo, developing the Solo: direct OmniPod competitor with a three-month life, electronically controlled (approved by the FDA but not yet available for sale)
- MedSolve Technologies, creating the Freehand: remote controlled, 80% smaller than OmniPod
- ST Microelectronics and Debiotech's Insulin NanoPump: has large reservoir, miniaturized system
- Altea Therapeutics, developing a 12-hour and 24-hour transdermal patch pumps (through the skin), which it's now co-developing with a company called KAI Pharmaceuticals
According to Kliff, the main problem with most of these pod-like designs is that they have too many moving and/or replaceable parts. That makes them too complicated to sell, i.e. complicates insurance reimbursement, not to mention making them too complicated for patients to use.
On top of all this, there is apparently serious discussion by the Powers That Be about instituting a US Medical Device Industry Tax as part of the healthcare reform movement. Any tax of this nature would of course hit the smaller, more nimble innovative shops harder than the big guys like Medtronic and J&J.
I guess what I'm saying is, don't hold your breath for 2010 to be a big year for exciting new diabetes devices that you can actually purchase and use. On the other hand, I just know there are "a million points of light" out there — great minds coming up with great innovations for diabetes care all on their own: students, tinkerers, entrepreneurs, etc. That's exactly why we're investing so much time and effort into the DiabetesMine Design Challenge...
Maybe, just maybe, we'll be lucky enough to find the next Insulet — a small group with a great new idea that they can actually convert into a real, usable diabetes tool for the here and now.
****UPDATE 12:00 pm PST****
Wouldn't you know it? Just this morning as this post was being published, the JDRF and Becton Dickinson (BD) announced a new collaboration to develop an advanced insulin delivery system in the form of either a novel new infusion set, or a "patch-pump configuration." JDRF will invest $4.3 million in this effort over the next few years. WOW. Keep your eyes peeled on that one!