Walgreens inks deal with Boehringer Ingelheim to advance clinical trials for obesity treatment

Retail pharmacy giant Walgreens inked another partnership to recruit participants for research as it continues to build out its clinical trials business.

The company signed a deal with Boehringer Ingelheim to use its community pharmacies as clinical trial sites for people living with obesity, overweight and type 2 diabetes.

Walgreens launched its clinical trials unit back in June 2022 as the company's healthcare ambitions continue to grow. The company has signed more than 35 clinical trial contracts with drugmakers including Freenome and Prothena.

The company aims to leverage its national presence, community relationships and data-driven clinical trials solutions to help identify and reach potential study participants for clinical trials.

The aim is to optimize recruitment and make clinical trials more accessible, inclusive and equitable, the companies said.

Boehringer Ingelheim is moving into Phase III studies for survodutide, the company’s glucagon/glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) receptor dual agonist co-developed with Zealand Pharma. Phase II data showed up to 19% weight loss in people living with overweight or obesity, Fierce Biotech reported.

There are already several drugs used for weight loss on the market—Novo Nordisk has made the early running in the obesity market with Ozempic and Wegovy, and Eli Lilly has reported deep declines in the weight of recipients on Mounjaro, as Fierce Biotech reported.

Walgreens consumers will have the opportunity to learn about and potentially participate in a Phase III clinical trial within the familiar and accessible environment of Walgreens pharmacies, the two companies said. The effort aims to improve access and address equitable health representation in clinical trials, especially among Black and Hispanic adults who are more likely to have obesity in the U.S. and have historically been underrepresented, according to the companies.

The research is part of the biopharma company's work in the area of cardiovascular, renal and metabolic (C-R-M) diseases.

Embracing our pharmacy clinical trial centers in this study underscores our joint commitment to community health and innovation,” said Ramita Tandon, chief clinical trials officer at Walgreens, said in a statement. “This model not only provides foundational education on clinical research for patients but also empowers individuals, offering them a new pathway to engage in their healthcare through clinical trial participation. It’s a step forward in transforming the landscape of clinical research, helping to make clinical trials more inclusive and accessible.”

Boehringer also is partnering with EmVenio Research on the initiative to use mobile research units to extend the reach and bring clinical trial research directly to communities.

Walgreens also says it will use advanced, real-world insights to identify and engage potential study participants as part of the collaboration.

It is estimated that over 1 billion people in the world live with obesity, and numbers are continuing to rise, with an estimated 24% of the entire world population affected by 2035. Obesity is included among cardiovascular, renal and metabolic (C-R-M) diseases, and, collectively, these are the leading cause of death worldwide.

As the company continues to build out its clinical trials business, it signed a deal with biotech startup Freenome to advance clinical trials of its blood-based tests for the early detection of cancer. Walgreens also notched a major partnership with Prothena to identify and recruit patients for the biotech company's Alzheimer’s disease drug candidate. It's also teaming up with the Cardiovascular Research Foundation to support research into valvular heart disease among older seniors. 

Walgreens continues to grow the business after rival CVS Health announced a year ago it was winding down its clinical trials arm just two years after its launch. The company will fully exit clinical trials by the end of 2024, executives said.

Walgreens operates about 9,000 drugstores with a presence in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, nearly half of which are in socially vulnerable areas, according to the company. More than 75% of Americans live within five miles of a Walgreens.

The pharmacy chain operator is undergoing a strategic review of its business, including the role of its retail pharmacy stores and its healthcare assets, as company leadership and the board plot the future direction of the company, CEO Tim Wentworth said back in March at the 44th Annual TD Cowen Health Care Conference.

Walgreens also will evaluate its smaller assets, or what Wentworth referred to as "green shoots" in the business, such as its two-year-old clinical trials recruitment unit and its central services and investment in its multi-site fulfillment facilities. But, Wentworth seemed bullish about the potential for Walgreens' clinical research recruitment business.

"We're able to recruit diverse patient panels four times faster than pharma can do it themselves. Speed matters when you're doing trials. And, we get paid for it and it's a variable cost business. We hire humans and we use our data to deliver that value to pharma. We aren't buying clinics and building brick-and-mortar do it," Wentworth said. "These sorts of things, while any one of them may not look like it's 10% of our underlying earnings, is highly capital efficient, and two or three of those added together suddenly starts becoming a meaningful part of our growth story."