Walgreens inks another deal for clinical trials business as CVS exits research recruitment

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 biotech startup Freenome to advance clinical trials of its blood-based tests for the early detection of cancer.

It marks the sixth contract that Walgreens has publicly disclosed for its year-old clinical trials business unit. The pharmacy chain launched the unit back in June 2022 as the company's healthcare ambitions continue to grow. 

While Walgreens continues to grow the business, rival CVS Health announced in May 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.

Back in April, Walgreens notched a major partnership with Prothena to identify and recruit patients for the biotech company's Alzheimer’s disease drug candidate. 

For the Freenome partnership, Walgreens says it brings to the table its national footprint, patient insights, compliant recruitment technology and local infrastructure to engage "diverse patient populations" in Freenome’s multicancer research program.

The company 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.

“At Walgreens, our aim is to help every community we serve see clinical research as a viable care option,” said Ramita Tandon, chief clinical trials officer for Walgreens, in a press release. “Through our nationwide presence and trusted pharmacists, we can reach and engage previously underserved patient populations for clinical trials."

Walgreens plans to work with decentralized clinical trial startup Curebase to initially recruit patients across diverse populations for Freenome’s Sanderson Study, which aims to evaluate blood-based early detection tests for multiple cancers.

Using Curebase’s platform, Walgreens will deliver targeted outreach to potentially eligible patients and caregivers via text, email or in-person consultation at the pharmacy. After completing a pre-screen, eligible patients are invited to enroll in the study. Walgreens healthcare providers will then perform a single blood draw at one of the company’s clinical trial locations and conduct a telehealth patient follow-up one year after their participation.

Freenome’s cancer detection platform takes a multiomics approach to analyzing blood samples, meaning it performs not only genomic analyses but also transcriptomic, methylomic and proteomic readings to delve even deeper into each patient’s biological makeup, Fierce Medtech reported.

The platform relies on machine learning and computational biology to scan those analyses and look for microscopic genetic changes and other markers found both within and outside of tumors linked to the earliest stages of cancer.

The company announced the Sanderson Study in September. The clinical trial aims to add another layer to the analysis process, folding in real-world data to potentially improve the blood test’s accuracy and highlight ways to make it more accessible in actual clinical settings.

“Freenome’s goal is to make early cancer screening more convenient for everyone, and our clinical research should reflect that availability and accessibility. With community reach, study conduct capabilities, national presence and real-world data generation resources, Walgreens is a natural partner to help deliver on that goal,” said Lance Baldo, chief medical officer at Freenome, said in a press release. 

The Sanderson Study will enroll approximately 8,000 participants through its clinical study partner network, which includes Walgreens.

The researchers are aiming to wrap up the study by early 2025, according to the national clinical trials database.

Walgreens and Freenome highlighted the need to improve diversity among participants in clinical trials, especially in cancer research.

The National Cancer Plan has set out goals for the healthcare industry to detect cancer earlier and eliminate inequities. Cancer claims nearly 2,000 lives daily in the U.S., but proactive screening tests can help find cancer at an early stage even before symptoms appear, according to the National Cancer Institute. Additionally, Black individuals of all ages have higher mortality rates than any other racial or ethnic group for many cancer types, National Institutes of Health data show.

Walgreens said it will work with Freenome to build risk-prediction models and population health software with a focus on identifying people who are eligible and stand to benefit from standard-of-care cancer detection testing.

Freenome executives said real-world data collected by Walgreens will inform the development of new products and services in its multicancer detection research, including the company’s blood-based colorectal cancer screening test.