Artificial Intelligence, BioPharma

A Wearable Tech Gives Pharmas & Therapists Better Feel for Changes in Mental Health

Pharmaceutical companies use Feel Therapeutics’ technology to monitor the mental state of participants in clinical trials of behavioral medications. But the startup envisions its technology eventually also finding a place as a part of clinical care.

When it comes to evaluating the health of a patient, each therapeutic area has its own data-gathering tools. Think glucose monitors in diabetes and heart monitors for cardiovascular disease. But in mental health, a clinician relies on what a patient says. Self-reporting is incomplete and lacks objectivity, says George Eleftheriou, CEO and co-founder of Feel Therapeutics.

Feel is trying to bring more complete and objective data collection to the field of mental health. The San Francisco-based startup does it with wearable technology that continuously collects data and provides recommendations.

“One of the things we hear is how poor storytellers people are and [how they] cannot truly depict what happened over the past few weeks,” Eleftheriou said. “This is what we bring to the table. We bring the data to light.”

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The Feel platform obtains data via a wristband that continuously monitors physiological signs, such as skin temperature, sweat, and heart rate. You sweat when you’re stressed and your heart beats faster when you’re angry, Eleftheriou explained. Those indicators can offer insight about a person’s emotional state. In addition to biological measures, the platform monitors a patient’s movements and counts interactions with other devices, which can also be indicators of behavioral changes.

The wristband connects to a mobile app, which uses artificial intelligence and proprietary algorithms to process the data to identify changes and patterns. Insights from this analysis can lead to a data-driven intervention, such as suggesting the user do a breathing exercise or mood journaling.

Feel has some clinical data that it says validate its approach. In a single-arm study evaluating the technology in 30 patients with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, results showed high engagement levels with the platform along with reductions in depressive and anxiety symptoms. The results were published last year in JMIR Formative Research. The paper’s authors note that it’s a small study and more research in larger, controlled clinical trials is needed to demonstrate efficacy.

Eleftheriou said more evidence is coming from larger studies. The research could support submissions seeking FDA clearance of the technology. But the Feel platform is already being used to monitor the emotional state of patients. Feel has partnerships with pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations that use the technology in clinical testing of experimental neuropsychiatric drugs. The clinical trial failure rate of such medicines is high. In many cases, failures are attributed to a high placebo response. Asked whether the technology can overcome these responses, Eleftheriou said what the Feel platform provides is a more accurate and objective picture of a patient’s mental health.

For Eleftheriou, Feel’s mission is personal. A native of Greece, Eleftheriou earned a graduate degree in electrical and computer engineering from Columbia University, then took a management consulting job in New York. He said the work led to anxiety and panic attacks. A therapist guided Eleftheriou through traditional techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mood journaling.

Feel co-founder Haris Tsirmpas is the company’s chief technology officer, but he’s also a  longtime friend to Eleftheriou. One day, the two were talking about Tsirmpas’s biomedical engineering research. Eleftheriou said the discussion brought him back to his experience in psychotherapy, which offered no way to objectively measure changes to his mental health. In 2015, Eleftheriou and Tsirmpas started developing the technology that would become the Feel platform.

There are other companies with wearable technologies that support pharma company clinical trials. Similar to Feel, the platform of Empatica consists of a wristwatch-like device that connects to a mobile app. To date, the MIT spinout has received six FDA clearances for its technology. Besides mental health, the platform can be applied to therapeutic areas such as cardiology, dermatology, epilepsy, sleep, and more. Empatica’s venture capital backers include Sanofi Ventures and RA Capital Management.

Feel has raised more than $13 million in venture capital funding from firms such as Felicis Ventures, Anthemis Exponential Ventures, and SOSV. In addition to generating evidence for pharma companies, the Feel technology also has potential use in real-world monitoring of patients who are taking neuropsychiatric drugs, Eleftheriou said. Monitoring a patient’s mental state and making recommendations can help those patients adhere to treatment plans. Feel is developing patient-support programs in collaboration with large employers in the U.S. and Europe, and with U.S.-based health plans. Eleftheriou said the Feel technology can personalize intervention and support based on the data that the platform is collecting. Rather than replacing a therapist, the technology could augment therapeutic sessions, he said.

“If we’re able to deliver that insight to the provider, the psychotherapist, before or during the session in a more objective way, this would have tremendous value for them,” Eleftheriou said.

Image: John Lund, Getty Images