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More Columns Coming; The Alliance for a Stronger FDA

Friday, May 24th, 2013

FDA Matters appreciates your patience. New columns will be coming in June, with fresh insights into FDA and the FDA-regulated world. 

Meantime, I write a weekly column in the Friday Update, published by the Alliance for a Stronger FDA. If you want to receive the Friday Update when it's published each week, you can sign up at http://www.strengthenfda.org, where it  says "subscribe to Alliance Updates."  You can also follow the Alliance on Twitter: @strengthenfda. Past columns are also available on the website. 

I urge readers of FDA Matters to consider becoming members of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA. It is a multi-stakeholder coalition working for increased appropriated resources for FDA. Members include patient and consumer organizations, research advocacy groups, health professions societies, companies, trade organizations, consulting firms and interested individuals. For membership information, contact me at: sgrossman@strengthenfda.org. 


Spinal Cord Injury—Innovation Measured in Decades, Not Headlines

Monday, June 18th, 2012


We are undergoing a supposed “national crisis” in medical innovation.  Congress, FDA, NIH, and industry are involved in multiple initiatives to “cure” this problem. This is particularly visible now because the user fee reauthorization process is underway, but the state of medical innovation is always relevant because of our headline-driven, crisis-oriented culture. 

To FDA Matters, this approach profoundly distorts medical accomplishment. You can’t use “where are we today” to judge the success or failure of a medical research process that is inherently broad, iterative, uneven, filled with false starts and driven by cumulative success more often than miraculous breakthroughs. As a case in point, I offer efforts to achieve spinal cord regeneration.  

In the mid-to-late 1970’s, I worked for an advocacy group that, among other things, represented the interests of medical research institutions. There was one Congressman on the right committee who was friendly to our cause and with whom we should have had a great relationship.

However, he had two key positions with which we could not agree. He was, simultaneously, the leading Congressional advocate for animal rights and perhaps the only Congressional advocate for spinal cord regeneration. We opposed his position on animal rights because we thought it would hinder medical research.

Surprisingly, we were also against his legislation that would stimulate medical research on spinal cord regeneration. We supported groups promoting the fight against cancer or cardiovascular disease because their proposals allowed NIH significant discretion to determine priorities. In contrast, we were against legislation that would require research on narrow and specific topics, such as spinal cord regeneration.

But our objection (and the vehemence of our objection) went well beyond that. The promise of biomedical research was so great, it was wrong to waste research monies on areas that held no promise.

After all, we thought, spinal cord regeneration was the stuff of science fiction. Despite the death and disability from spinal cord injury—an area of genuine unmet need—there was nothing that could be done. People could dream of a future world where medical science could achieve such miracles, but for the foreseeable future it was wasted money and unfairly gave hope to patients to suggest that spinal cord regeneration was possible.

Flash forward 30 plus years and the Congressman looks like a visionary….and the organization I worked for looks like unwitting advocates for the status quo. A rich base of scientific discoveries has improved supportive care, provided mechanisms for limiting the damage from spinal cord injuries and given reasonable hope that spinal cord regeneration is a possibility for humans in the next 10 to 15 years, maybe sooner. 

To gain perspective on this, along with a sense of NIH’s current commitment to this area of research, go to http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/sci/detail_sci.htm and also follow some of the links from that site.

I don’t think we were fools in 1998 because we couldn’t see spinal cord regeneration as a promising research area. Despite the organization’s considerable expertise, we underestimated how far medical research could take us—given enough time, interest, commitment and funding. Also, in retrospect, it is remarkable how willing researchers are to contribute to a process of innovation and discovery for which someone else might eventually gain most of the credit.

Forgive me if I don’t see the crisis of “medical innovation” about which it is so fashionable to complain.

As a result of the user fee reauthorization legislation and other FDA and NIH initiatives, I foresee a more conducive regulatory environment for development and approval of medically-innovative products, particularly orphan drugs. The goal is to allow more flexibility, while maintaining rigor. However, these process enhancements are only valuable if there is a wealth of medical innovation, not a dearth of it.

There is more innovative medical research being done today than at any time in history. But the truly great achievements are usually built on many people’s work undertaken over many decades—and until near the end, they hardly ever rate a headline unless someone is intentionally hyping them. Look beneath the surface and you will find that medical innovation is alive and well and just needs our continued encouragement—via regulatory and funding support.  


Imports: FDA Issues a Cry for Help

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

No challenge to FDA’s mission looms larger than the rapid globalization of the world markets for food, drugs, medical devices and other FDA-regulated products.  By way of making this point, on June 20, the FDA released a special report, entitled “Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality.”  

FDA Matters read the report carefully and heard a cry for help, if not an actual primal scream.

The report provides startling statistics on the recent and future growth of imports. A decade ago, 6 million shipments of FDA-regulated goods passed through our nation’s 300 ports; this year the number will quadruple to 24 million shipments.

The impact is across all areas of FDA responsibility. Currently, 60% of fruits and vegetables and 80% of seafood consumed in the US are imported. About 80% of active ingredients found in pharmaceutical products (not finished products) originated abroad. More than 35% of the US medical equipment market is imported devices.

The world is an unsafe place. Despite that, Americans are not going to restrict themselves to seasonal and locally grown food. Nor will we limit ourselves to the drugs and devices that can be developed and manufactured using only ingredients and parts that come from within the US.

We count on FDA to be sure our foods are safe and medical products safe and effective, regardless of origin.  However, imports inspire less confidence because there are hundreds of thousands of products made under local laws and business practices. We have much to be concerned as these numbers continue to grow.  

Even with additional resources, new legal authorities, international cooperation, improved strategies, complex databases and a bunch of good luck…keeping the American people safe will require the agency to invest several times more effort than it has in the recent past.

FDA’s plan is logical and appropriate:

1) FDA, in close partnership with its foreign counterparts, will assemble global coalitions of regulators dedicated to building and strengthening the product safety net around the world.

2) With these coalitions, FDA intends to develop a global data information system and network in which regulators worldwide can regularly and proactively share real-time information and resources across markets.

3) FDA will continue to expand its capabilities in intelligence gathering and use, with an increased focus on risk analytics and thoroughly modernized IT capabilities.

4) FDA will effectively allocate agency resources based on risk, leveraging the combined efforts of government, industry, and public- and private-sector third parties.

In short, FDA’s strategy is: let’s build the food, drug, and device equivalent of Interpol, then “let’s get the bad guys before they get us.”

This seems like a good approach, but it is not enough. In a speech in April, Dr. Murray Lumpkin, Deputy Commissioner for International Programs, referred to FDA-regulated products as coming from “roughly 200 countries, using 825,000 importers through over 300 US ports-of-entry.” How do you possibly manage that?   

I can’t claim to know the answer. Significantly increased funding for import safety is essential. A larger FDA overseas force is necessary to work with other governments and set up international standards. Tougher US laws are needed. We have learned, however, that it is hard to prevent problems when one or two business owners are prepared to willfully neglect standards and heedlessly adulterate food and drug products.

Our only choice is to respect what FDA has accomplished…..and give them the support and funding (and maybe some out-of-the-box ideas) to do an even better job.


FDA’s Report on Imports: http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OC/GlobalProductPathway/default.htm

Dr. Lumpkin’s presentation:  Viewing the world through the FDA international lens: Advancing domestic public health through international engagement. Slides from presentation given to membership of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, April 26, 2011.


Two Strategies for FDA Legislation in 2011

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

The current Congress will be remembered for its 15-month battle to enact health reform legislation. The FDA-related accomplishments have been less visible: an abbreviated approval pathway for bio-similar drugs included in the health reform law; and a food safety bill that may be enacted before Congress adjourns later this month.

In both cases, unanimity was never possible, but working majorities formed and prevailed. FDA Matters believes that any FDA-related legislation will falter in 2011 if it does not follow the strategy behind one or the other of these efforts.  (more…)

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