A person rides past a Walgreens truck, owned by the Walgreens Boots Alliance, in Manhattan, New York City, on Nov. 26, 2021.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

Walgreens on Thursday said it will start to work directly with drugmakers to bring cell and gene therapies to U.S. patients as part of a broader expansion of its specialty pharmacy services.

The company said it is launching a new business unit dedicated to its specialty pharmacy segment, which will include specialty pharmacy subsidiary AllianceRx. The unit will fall under its core U.S. retail pharmacy division. Meanwhile, Shields Health Solutions, a subsidiary that supports health system-owned specialty pharmacies, will remain under Walgreens’s U.S. health-care division. 

Specialty pharmacies have become a significant player in the U.S. health system, especially as chronic diseases become more prevalent.

Specialty pharmacies provide medications that require extreme care in handling, storage and distribution. The treatments are often for patients with chronic, rare or complex conditions such as cancer, Crohn’s disease and HIV. Specialty pharmacies also offer counseling or financial assistance designed to support patients taking those costly treatments.

Among the company’s new investments to “transform” its specialty pharmacy services, it will open a newly licensed facility in Pittsburgh dedicated to services for cell and gene therapies. The 18,000-square-foot center will help drugmakers and health-care providers navigate the complex supply chain for those treatments and manage patient needs, among other issues.

Andrew Brookes | Image Source | Getty Images

Walgreens’ decision to launch cell and gene therapy services comes after a surge in approvals of those drugs in the U.S. in the European Union over the last year. They are one-time, high-cost treatments that target a patient’s genetic source or cell to cure or significantly alter the course of a disease. Some health experts expect cell and gene therapies to replace traditional lifelong treatments that people take to manage chronic diseases. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved seven cell and gene therapies last year, including the first gene therapies to treat sickle cell disease. That market is only expected to grow: The FDA has predicted that it will be reviewing and approving between 10 and 20 cell and gene therapies each year by 2025. 

Walgreens said its newly launched business unit is the largest independent provider of specialty pharmacy services, with approximately $24 billion in revenue from the segment. Walgreens Specialty Pharmacy business is not partnered with a pharmacy benefit manager, the company noted. 

That gives the company “the flexibility to contract dynamically with any payer,” Walgreens Chief Pharmacy Officer Rick Gates said in the release. “We can partner directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers to facilitate products to market, including limited distribution drugs, and coordinate closely with providers to ensure patients experience a smooth start to treatment.” 

Under the new unit, patients of AllianceRx and the company’s nearly 300 community-based pharmacies now have access to resources that will “build upon the expert care they already receive from their specialty pharmacist,” Walgreens said in the release. That includes clinicians with key disease expertise, nutritionists and nurses.

The company said its community-based specialty pharmacies are located near medical office buildings and health systems, offering specialty drugs “faster than industry average” along with services such as injection training and side-effect management. 

Walgreens said it has more than 1,500 specialty pharmacists, 5,000 patient-advocacy support team members and an unspecified number of dedicated specialty pharmacy teams.

The company also offers more than 1,300 specialty drugs, including 240 “limited distribution” drugs that few specialty pharmacies have access to.

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