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San Diego
Monday, May 27, 2024
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Co. Takes on Dementia By Making Memories

A man with dementia in a San Diego care facility uttered little. But upon holding a tablet with rotating images of his hometown of Chicago, he beamed. Words flowed.

Dthera pairs uploaded photos with
audio of people reminiscing about them
as a way to soothe Alzheimer’s patients.

CEO: Edward Cox

No. of Local Workers: 25, including contractors

Headquarters: San Diego

Year Founded: 2012

Stock symbol and exchange: DTHR on OTCQB market, with plans to uplist to the Nasdaq by the end of the year

Company Description: Through a subscription, families can remotely create an interconnected web of photos, video and sound clips to soothe neurological disease sufferers

Similarly, scrolling pictures and audio of Willie Mays excited a lifelong Giants fan with Alzheimer’s. That was despite no longer recognizing her own grandchildren.

Dthera Sciences CEO Edward Cox recently recalled these seniors trying out the company’s cloud-based platform. It allows families to remotely create an interconnected web of photos, videos and sound clips to soothe neurological disease sufferers.

The service, complete with senior-custom tablets, launched in August with a $33-a-month subscription. With much of the content pairing submitted photos with family descriptions of them, Cox loosely likened it to Netflix.

“The content is like a TV station of your life,” Cox said, noting such reminders aim to reduce anxiety and loneliness.

Supplementing Care

After overcoming myriad software and hardware pitfalls, the San Diego digital therapeutics company looks to supplement traditional elderly care that’s reliant on time-strapped caregivers and families.

Dthera went from four workers last summer to 25 today, including contractors. More hiring is planned, in part because a separate Dthera device in development recently earned a first-of-its-kind designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The company’s subscription service enables families via text or app to upload photos, videos and voice recordings, broadcast directly to a tablet the company built from the ground up. The offering is called ReminX. By next August, the goal is 10,000 subscriptions.

In Dthera’s Miramar Road office, Cox demonstrated one device function. An artificial intelligence chatbot texted him requesting content — in this instance audio describing a family photo he submitted.

Cox agreed, and seconds later received a phone call to record his account of the photo. The description and image were automatically packaged together in a slideshow ready for viewing.

Data is stored in the cloud and only shared with select individuals.

AI and Machine Learning

Dthera’s technology employs facial recognition and artificial intelligence to learn what Alzheimer’s patients like viewing. It does two things with learnings: encourages family to send additional content that’s similar, and stitches together what could be called greatest-hits packages.

The platform claims to deliver a more efficient version of what’s called reminiscence therapy — visually or orally reminding a senior of their past.

Cox said these “anchor memories” orient Alzheimer’s patients, staving off a sense of foreboding associated with the disease.

“It’s like someone is on a ship in a storm, the boat is spinning, and you’re just trying to give them a lighthouse,” he said.

Reminiscence therapy gained popularity in the 1980s in group settings. But Dthera believes seniors benefit from greater personalization and frequency.

The company is seeking to prove this with the FDA.

Breakthrough Designation

Last month, Dthera’s developmental-stage product called DTHR-ALZ earned an FDA breakthrough device designation, one of the first digital therapeutics companies in the United States to earn the distinction.

The designation — which sets up an eased regulatory path — is given to products that could improve on the status quo for life-threatening diseases.

Pharmaceuticals have dumped billions into Alzheimer’s, with flop after flop in a disease that affects an estimated 5.5 million Americans. There are glimmerings of hope, including Carlsbad-based Ionis Pharmaceuticals last year starting clinical testing for a drug to treat milder cases of Alzheimer’s.

Dthera sees an opportunity to have an impact right now.

A small clinical pilot study gauging in-home use of DTHR-ALZ for cases of mild to moderate dementia indicated patients reported significantly less anxiety, depression and overall emotional distress after viewing customized stories.

But a report of the study, conducted with UC San Diego, noted limitations. Notable was the lack of a control group, which FDA studies will have.

Insurance Reimbursement?

FDA approval would make Dthera eligible for insurance reimbursement.

A challenge is that half of U.S. doctors surveyed last year by market research firm Ipsos Healthcare had never heard of digital therapeutics. Furthermore, they’re skeptical.

Even when presented with clinical data of virtual reality’s success versus opioids in pain management, only 7 percent of doctors felt comfortable prescribing the technology as a first-line treatment.

“It was really interesting to see that actually a majority of doctors only felt comfortable using a digital therapeutic in combination with drug therapy, not to replace as a main treatment,” said Reena Sangar, head of digital and connected health at Ipsos Healthcare. She added the awareness gap of digital therapeutics is even larger among the public.

That means credibility will be key. In this area, Sangar said Dthera’s breakthrough designation is an early leg up on potential competitors, though she wasn’t aware of any.

The IP

Cox said observers would be hard pressed to find direct competition — adding the company dug a moat with patents around key features.

Among the companies that have leapt into the burgeoning digital therapeutics space: Millbrae, California-based Care.coach, which uses an animal avatar on a tablet that reminds seniors to take medications.

The avatar — voiced partly by artificial intelligence and partly by human specialists behind the scenes — acts as a companion. So the device is in the same digital therapeutics realm as Dthera, but different.

Dthera is counting on a convergence of trends: a greater preference for aging in place at home; senior facility caregivers stretched thin; and a silver tsunami. It’s anticipated the percentage of the world’s population aged 65 and older will double by 2050.

Dave Keene, the company’s chief technology officer, had more than market demographics in mind when he founded EveryStory, which was acquired by Dthera in 2015.

In 2012, Keene was diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer, though initially he did not know just how advanced.

“My biggest fear was my son wouldn’t remember the sound of my voice,” he told the San Diego Business Journal three years ago. Keene — who is now cancer-free — is leading the development of DTHR-ALZ.

The Tablet

Dthera created senior-friendly tablets from square one, which wasn’t originally in the plans. But Google Nexus 7 tablets aren’t big or durable enough. Nor are iPads, which also aren’t wirelessly charged, critical for someone with limited motor control.

Dthera tablets have no interface; patients pick up the tablet and stories start playing automatically. But perhaps the most notable difference: The company’s tablets are much louder than counterparts for hearing-challenged seniors.

It took a while to get the hardware right. Past tablet prototypes — of varying sizes and shapes — stood in black stands in the company’s office.

Aiming for Nasdaq

“We cracked the code on the way to display this content with hardware that cannot be done off the shelf. I wish it could. It would have saved us years, and a lot of money, but now that we’ve got it, good luck trying to repeat that,” Cox said.

Besides seeking FDA approval and a new subscription offering, Dthera by the end of the year plans to uplist to the Nasdaq from the OTCQB market.

Dthera has much going on — and momentum — but this story is still being written.

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