Novartis debuted a campaign for dry eye disease medication Xiidra this month, turning the inflammation behind dry eye into a villain.

The campaign is both raising awareness for dry eye disease and promoting Xiidra. The effort is also a “rebranding” of sorts after Novartis bought the drug from Takeda last August, said Chris Simms, U.S. ophthalmics franchise head at Novartis. 

“In some ways there’s a rebranding effort, not that we think efforts in the past weren’t working. One reason why we thought Xiidra was a great opportunity was when we looked at the market, the patient opportunity was represented by over 30 million patients. When you have a dynamic like that, you have to start with some sort of awareness of the disease state before you get into the brand.”

Based on Novartis’ research, an estimated 30 million people in the U.S. have dry eye symptoms, a huge potential market for Xiidra, Simms said. About half of that population, 16 million people, have been diagnosed with dry eye disease, and less than 2 million are being treated with a prescription for it.

“The need to create awareness about the disease and different treatment options is quite significant,” Simms said. “Many patients are stuck on a cycle of over-the-counter artificial tears and many patients don’t realize there may be prescription medicine for them. The goal of the campaign is to bring that to life and through all of that ensure patients are encouraged to speak to their eye care professional.”

A major part of the TV spot is devoted to explaining that dry eyes could be caused by inflammation. Novartis created an animated villain to personify that inflammation and make the spot more memorable, Simms said.

The ad shows the animated inflammation character controlling the symptoms of dry eye, like itch, grit, burning and ache, as a woman works at her computer and attempts to use over-the-counter artificial tears to alleviate symptoms.

“Many patients don’t think of it as a disease, they think of it more as an inconvenience or condition they have to suffer through, which gives rise to a lot of the self treatment you see,” Simms said. “Many patients likely have several different options for artificial tears they use to self-medicate, but that often provides only episodic and short-term relief.”

The main message is that chronic dry eye disease could be caused by an underlying issue that can’t necessarily be treated with artificial tears. The team also worked with eye care professionals to match the messaging and description of symptoms to what they hear from their patients.

This campaign is also being carried over to doctors. Novartis is hosting a virtual event for physicians on dry eye disease management that will also feature talks from patients who suffer from the condition and information about Xiidra.

The campaign launch was tied to National Dry Eye Awareness Month in July.

The dry eye issue may be even further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As more people stay home and work remote, screen usage has gone up. Looking at screens can reduce the blink rate, leading to even worse dry eye symptoms.

“Unfortunately, in the current COVID-19 world, most of us are spending more time in virtual environments and behind screens” Simms said. “Some research suggests that the blink rate is reduced by about 50% in front of the screen and over time that can certainly exacerbate symptoms of dry eye disease.”