In what could be the first step in the development of a significant new line of business for the telemedicine prescription provider Ro, the company is finally announcing the general commercial availability of weight loss product, Plenity.
Developed by Gelesis, a biotech company that makes treatments for gastro-intestinal disorders, Plenity is a weight loss treatment that uses citric acid and cellulose to create a non-toxic paste that makes people feel more full after they ingest it. Taken before meals, the pill becomes a substance that expands to take up about 25% of the stomach, so people eat less.
The product has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is available for a much broader segment of the population than other weight loss products. While most prescription medicines are intended for people who are obese, the Gelesis product is made for people who are overweight, too.
"That’s adults who have a BMI from 25 up to 40. That’s 150 million Americans," according to Gelesis chief commercial and operating officer, David Pass.
Plenity received FDA approval last April, and Gelesis started working with Ro soon after, according to Pass. The idea was to craft a strategy that could get the treatment, which is classified as a medical device and not a drug, in the hands of as many patients as quickly as possible.
For Ro, the agreement with Gelesis is a sign of potential things to come. The company is the exclusive online provider of the Plenity treatment and Ro founder Zachariah Reitano said that there's an incredible potential to engage in more of these types of deals.
"We would love to be able to partner with pharmaceutical companies to decrease the cost of distribution," said Reitano. "We were excited to build an exciting treatment solution for weight management. Our high-level mission is to be the patient’s first call."
With the Gelesis partnership Ro can add another highly desirable treatment to its roster of therapies -- and one that can be a contributing factor to increasing the severity of other conditions that the company already provides treatment for, Reitano said.
"There are a few conditions that we currently treat that are exacerbated by a patient being overweight or obese. People who struggle with weight management will also experience ED. Obesity can lead to heart failure, stroke, coronary heart disease, hypertension, depression," Reitano said. "The breadth of the label is interesting. Only FDA approved with a BMI from 25 to 40. FDA approved treatment have been between 30 and 40. [It] makes the treatment more accessible to a wider variety of people."
As the only online provider of the treatment, Ro has developed an onboarding process to ensure that the Plenity therapy isn't abused by people who suffer from eating disorders.
"During our onboarding we not only ask questions to patients about their weight management. There’s a consecutive set of images that need to be uploaded and taken with the provider. That’s something we’ve taken a lot of time and energy to make sure about," said Reitano.
Like the other treatments Ro offers, Plenity is a cash-pay prescription, because the weight loss treatments aren't typically covered by insurance, he said.
The benefit of working with an online pharmacy like Ro to provide distribution for a new therapy was obvious to both startups.
"We turned this market on its head by putting the consumer at the heart of everything we do," said Pass. The treatment costs $98 per month, compared to other therapies or branded medications that could be as much $300 and $350 per month, according to Pass.
One reason that Gelesis is able to reduce the price of the drug is that it won't have to hire a massive sales force to pitch it. The company has Ro for that.
"Normally you have a pharmaceutical company that would have to hire a sales force and go door to door and it increases the cost of a new drug. [Ro] can make a new, innovative treatment, like Plenity, available nationwide," Reitano said.