Merck Using Virtual Reality To Make Pediatric Study Visits More Pleasant

By Deborah Borfitz

February 8, 2022 | For its patient-centric retention innovation using virtual reality to enhance the clinical trial experience for kids with cancer, Merck took first place honors at Participant Engagement Award ceremonies on the opening day of the Summit for Clinical Ops Executives (SCOPE) in Orlando, Florida yesterday. In her brief, but emotional, acceptance speech, Director of Global Trial Optimization Gwenn Oakes says it all began with a simple question she and Merck senior scientist and project “MVP” Angela Caprise thought to ask as any mother might: How could they put a positive spin on the typically long study visits for children and their families? 

And as any kid might suggest, they thought immediately of technology-related activities. Once they decided on virtual reality, they had only to choose a vendor partner to bring that simple idea to fruition, says Oakes. The menu options include a nature film, guided meditation, and a one-hour world tour. 

It was viewed as a “tangible way” to show study participants their contribution to science is recognized and valued, she adds. The targeted pediatric study population skews toward adolescent ages.

Although the pandemic interfered with project execution, and therefore assessment of the impact on retention, “we have a compliant path forward for future clinical trials,” says Oakes.

Guardant Health took second place with a program to address the gap in access to a liquid biopsy (minimally invasive, NGS test) for matching oncology patients to enrolling clinical trials. As reported in a short video presentation, almost half of the nearly 1,750 patients tested had had an actionable alteration. 

The model is growing in scale in the EU and demand is being driven by treating oncologists, according to Melissa Gebhardt, senior director of business development and companion diagnostics for Guardant Health. Site demand is strong; the bigger challenge has been aligning with specific therapeutic indications. 

In the U.S., such testing is “more standard of care” and driven by patients, she says. In the EU, trial sites are in control and patient education is therefore less of an issue. 

Coming in third place was Tryl with its “Empathetic Patient Engagement System” that guides participants through a compliance-ready journey to increase adherence while lowering dropouts. As stated in its video presentation, the system is designed to “keep clinical trials top of mind” by integrating them into the daily lives of study volunteers. 

Goal-setting, transparency, and especially the platform’s “social proof” aspect are significant features, says Tryl cofounder Jeff Smith. The intrinsic motivation for people to participate in trials is to spare others the ordeal they are experiencing. 

The early-stage company jumpstarted with a pilot involving 10,000 participants in the melanoma community, but interest in the technology is also high in the chronic disease and dermatology arenas where retention can be problematic, he says.  Based on experience in the pro sports world, engagement can be surprisingly robust in the 50-plus age range.

Rounding out the awards ceremony was a presentation by Fabio Gratton, cofounder and CEO of inVibe Labs, about the company’s voice research platform TrialPulse that “brings the patient voice to all stages of the drug development process.” Patients get recruited both directly (social media and patient communities) and indirectly (advocacy groups and existing patient panels) and the insights can be gathered within 24 to 48 hours. A typical study has 20 to 30 patient advisors, he notes.

Infiuss Health also presented on its smartphone-based platform connecting Africans to hybrid or fully virtual clinical trials in under 60 minutes with over 95% accuracy. About 60% of the trials utilizing the platform are for oncology treatments, but good use cases also include COVID-19, sickle cell anemia, and endemic diseases such as malaria, according to cofounder and CEO Melissa Jane Bime.

Serving as judges for the Participant Engagement Award were Irfan Khan, CEO of Circuit Clinical; Kimberly Richardson, president of the Black Cancer Collaborative; Kelly McKee, vice president of patient recruitment and registries for Medidata Solutions; Michelle Crouthamel, head of digital science at AbbVie; Gretchen Goller, senior director and head of the patient recruitment and retention solutions group at Seagen; and Alicia Staley, vice president of patient engagement at Medidata.