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The State of the FDA—January 2012

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

FDA is the only federal agency that touches the lives of every American several times every day. Its remarkably broad mandate includes all medical products and 80% of the nation’s food supply, plus countless other products. Despite this, when the President delivers his State of the Union (SOTU) address to Congress this week, it is unlikely that FDA will rate a mention.

FDA Matters will instead provide its second annual “State of the FDA.” As reflected in last week’s column, FDA did well in 2011, but one year’s progress does not change the continued precarious state of the FDA. Here is our analysis:

Strengths: FDA’s most important strength is the dedication of the agency’s staff  and the leadership of Commissioner Hamburg’s team. In the current environment, their efforts are invisible to the public they serve and largely unappreciated. If safe foods and safe and effective medications are important to you, say “thank you” to the FDA staff that make it possible.

The agency’s independence is another key strength of the FDA. At the moment, many FDA observers don’t see it that way, viewing the HHS Secretary’s decision to overrule FDA on Plan B as evidence that the agency is weak and dependent. However, Plan B is a ‘one-of-a –kind” controversy, presenting uniquely difficult and combustible issues that aren’t present in 99.9 percent of FDA’s decisions. If you look at the totality of FDA actions, the agency is remarkably independent from HHS and the White House. Rather than a weakness, this is one of the agency’s strengths.

Weaknesses: Despite a number of recent, laudable efforts at improvement, the FDA is still disorganized and largely ineffective in communicating its messages to the public, media, stakeholders and Congress. Notably, an analysis published in the journal, Medical Care, last week concluded that: although some [FDA] communication efforts had a strong and immediate effect, many had little or no impact on drug use or health behaviors and several had unintended consequences.

FDA’s information technology (IT) systems continue to be grossly inadequate for an agency with such large, far-flung and complex responsibilities. Some progress has been made with analytic data bases, such as the Sentinel program to track post-market safety, and with data bases that improve the flow of information within the agency and between field and headquarters. The October 2011 appointment of a new chief information officer with industry experience is a hopeful sign.

Opportunities: The promise of science has never been brighter. And Dr. Hamburg, to her credit, has made it a priority to improve the agency’s scientific bench strength—better credentials, better training and better tools.

This provides FDA and the medical products industries with the opportunity to forge a new “social contract” with regard to scientific standards and product approvals. FDA must commit to becoming less formalistic and bureaucratic in its dealings with companies. It must demonstrate (not just accept) that advancing medical innovation is an integral part of the FDA’s role in promoting public health. In turn, industry needs to accept that “science, fairly evaluated within predictable guidelines,” is an appropriate expectation as opposed to a system based on short-cuts to market and ill-defined, “leap of faith” assumptions about safety and efficacy. In addition, industry bashing of FDA needs to end. It is counterproductive to everyone’s interests.

Equally promising is the opportunity to significantly upgrade the safety of the American food supply. Even with the devotion of FDA staff to this cause, we are lucky that the reported levels of foodborne disease and product adulteration are not higher. The year-old Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is, by general agreement, a blueprint for moving to a new level, one where a safer food supply reflects smart decisions.

Threats: The largest threat to FDA is inadequate funding. As science has become more complex, industry more global and information more integral to every human interaction, FDA oversees a rapidly expanding portfolio of products and responsibilities. Even without the threat of budget cuts facing all federal agencies, it would be hard to grow the FDA budget enough to stay ahead.

A related threat is the potential for massive expansion of FDA’s unfunded mandates during Congressional reauthorization of the drug and medical device user fee programs. FDA is almost certain to be given new (and needed) authority for drug import inspections and drug shortages. In addition, Congress will consider and most likely pass a dozen or more other new programs or significant changes in FDA regulation. FDA will almost certainly have to implement these new requirements without additional appropriations. 


For those who may be interested, here is a link to “The State of the FDA—January 2011” http://www.fdamatters.com/?p=1240.

FDA and Congress: Prospects for 2012

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Barely more than a year ago, the US experienced a “wave” election—sweeping a Republic majority into the House of Representatives and reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate. As a result, FDA faced a Congress in 2011 that contained fewer friends and less support than previously.

The consequences, thus far, have been small. Congress became so absorbed with deficit reduction that it accomplished little else this year and spent almost no time on FDA issues. Circumstances will change this in 2012 and, fortunately, we have strong clues about Congressional attitudes and priorities.

At the end of 2010, FDA Matters devoted six blog columns to examining the impact of the election on FDA and its regulated industries. As predicted, Congress was more interested in deficit reduction in 2011 than any other topic. This shows no sign of abating.

For FDA, this means constant pressure from Congress on funding, particularly from sequestration and other threats of across-the-board cuts in federal spending. FDA’s best position is always to have its needs evaluated on an individual agency basis—rather than being part of a larger funding action.

Congress chose not to address FDA’s FY 11 appropriation in the post-election session. Instead, it addressed this in April of 2011 on fairly favorable terms to the agency.

Similarly, FY 12 appropriations demonstrated that Congress was still receptive to partially meeting FDA’s growing resource needs, but it became clearer that future funding increases will be even harder to get. Arguments for FDA being an exception to deficit reduction will be made often next year by agency supporters within Congress and by outside advocates.

In general, very little legislation passed Congress in 2011 and virtually none without bi-partisan support. FDA Matters pointed out that achieving such consensus was possible on FDA issues when Democrats from technology-oriented regions joined with Republicans on positions that could enjoy industry/patient or industry/consumer support. This approach did not produce any legislation in 2011.

However, technology-oriented Democrats are likely to join Republicans in shaping the user fee reauthorization legislation, which Congress “must-pass” in 2012. It seems certain that the bi-partisan pathways will produce most of the legislation, including new authority for drug import inspections, incentives for development of antibiotics and provisions to address drug shortages.

I expected a substantial ramp-up of Congressional oversight and investigations of FDA and regulated industries, which never materialized. There were a few hearings, but never the vehemence or persistence that would have represented a major change from the previous Congress.  I still believe there will be an uptick in these activities, but most likely it will be deferred until late 2012 or 2013, after Congress adopts the user fee reauthorization legislation.

A final column last year asked the provocative question: will the new Congress be good for FDA-regulated industries? Republicans generally want federal regulations and regulatory agencies trimmed back significantly. In contrast, FDA-regulated industries generally want more flexible regulatory requirements and greater certainty in their implementation, but are not interested in eliminating FDA’s regulatory responsibilities or limiting its ability to assure public health and safety.

So far, this Congress has not come to a firm conclusion about FDA. It has not embraced FDA as an essential government service—like national defense and air-traffic controllers—but neither has it marked FDA as a particular target to starve, roll-back, harass or marginalize.

The deciding factor may be how FDA responds to Congress’ insistence that FDA be a positive force in the advancement of American innovation and a contributor to US competitiveness. This is precipitating an identity crisis at FDA, which the agency is working hard to resolve.

If FDA succeeds in integrating innovation into its mission, priorities and processes, then Congress will be able to see FDA (and the support it enjoys) as being essentially different than other regulatory agencies that do not have widespread public support.  This is the optimum position for FDA in its relationship with Congress.


FDA Bashing: The Wrong Way to Improve FDA

Monday, December 5th, 2011

FDA is imperfect in many ways: it can be hard to predict, maddeningly slow to decide, and inflexible in the face of complex situations. Yet, FDA does remarkably well at carrying out its difficult public health mission. Plus, the agency is constantly striving for improvement.

These points seem lost on agency critics bent on bashing the agency. To believe many of them, FDA is bureaucratically and culturally driven to be ineffective…. and heedless of the impact of its actions on industry innovation and patients in medical need. FDA Matters says: nonsense!

FDA bashing is not a victimless crime. It is a slur on the agency’s good name and many accomplishments. It impedes rational efforts to improve FDA process and performance. It is a barrier to fruitful dialog between FDA and its stakeholders. It drains agency resources and threatens its funding.

FDA bashing is also an incendiary, fostering an environment of “simple, neat and wrong solutions” aimed at fixing the agency.*

FDA bashers make it seem like the world would be a better place if the agency didn’t exist or if its powers were dramatically circumscribed. It’s hard to make FDA a more effective public health and regulatory agency in the midst of such misguided rhetoric. FDA was created–and further empowered over the last 100 years—precisely because regulatory oversight is necessary to assure a safe food supply and safe and effective medical products.

When FDA makes predictable, science-based decisions, patients and consumers benefit from quality products…and industry has the level playing field needed to assure fair competition. This works well most of the time. I’ve heard it said: the world only notices FDA when something goes wrong. That’s largely true.

Believing in FDA and its mission does not require silence or uncritical booster-ism. Let’s all agree that FDA needs to do a lot better before it can be considered the model  for a modern food and drug regulatory agency.

There is a bright dividing line between FDA bashing and working to improve the agency. FDA Matters has praised the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO) for its positive agenda, even while expressing reservations about BIO’s specific proposals for independent agency status for FDA and a new progressive approval pathway. There have been many positives (and much progress) in the negotiations over medical device user fee reauthorization, even as industry and the agency have bickered privately and in public about the direction of the program.

FDA Matters has been disappointed by many others–industry, patients, Congress, media, and think-tanks–who have emphasized agency bashing at their meetings and in their public communications. Often, the bashing starts with the wrong premise (the agency is largely broken) and concludes with the wrong prescription (break down the agency’s culture and processes and rebuild anew). Not only are these wrong, but they crowd out practical and constructive dialog about agency improvement.

FDA has (in my view) gone out of its way to welcome comments and respond thoughtfully. There is so much more to do….but the agency is not hiding from criticism or arguing reforms are unnecessary.

Other stakeholders seem to be responding in kind. I am involved with at least two efforts to build FDA reform agendas and would welcome the opportunity to participate in others.

FDA Matters believes the right way to improve FDA is through constructive recommendations and thorough discussion. FDA and our nation deserve better than vitriol about how FDA is destroying jobs and is “the enemy.”


* After H.L. Mencken’s admonition that “for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.”

FDA’s Fuzzy Funding Future

Monday, November 28th, 2011

While not all of FDA’s problems are caused by a lack of resources, few of its problems can be solved without better funding. Money matters. “Safer foods” requires funding to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act. “Faster and safer drug and device approvals” are only possible with funds to pay additional reviewers and build improved regulatory systems.

FDA has an enormous job and its responsibilities grow every year. Funding increases over the last five years have not offset decades of underfunding and under-investment in the agency. FDA Matters believes the next 12 months will determine FDA’s funding future.

The Outlook for Appropriations. FDA’s FY 12 funding is now set. The agency will have $50 million more to spend this fiscal year, for a total of $2.5 billion. While this increase is not large, FDA did quite well in the face of a possible $285 million cut. The agency was one of the few federal programs to receive more dollars than in FY 11.

 It’s too early to project next year’s appropriation. The President’s FY 13 request will be released in early February 2012. Because the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 requires aggregate domestic discretionary spending to be lower than FY 12, competition for funding will become even more intense. Congress will need to be persuaded that FDA funding is a priority and needs to be an exception to funding constraints.

Also as a result of BCA, there is a very real threat to FY 13 FDA funding, as part of mandatory across-the-board cuts (“sequestration”) scheduled to take place on January 1, 2013. Unless Congress passes substantial deficit reduction legislation next year in lieu of sequestration, FDA must prepare for a possible cut in the range of $150 million to $250 million.   

Prospects for User Fees. In addition to appropriations, the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA) provides FDA with supplemental funding from industry to support review of applications for new drugs and biologics. A similar program (MDUFMA) supports review of medical devices. There are also several smaller fee programs, as well as user fees that support the FDA’s tobacco center.  This chart shows the amount and growth of revenue derived from industry fees:  

All numbers approximate

FY 2009

FY 2010

FY 2011


$    512 million

$    573 million

$   667 million


$      47 million

$      57 million

$     57 million



$    235 million

$   450 million


All Fee Revenue (inc. smaller programs)

$    637 million

$    922 million

$ 1.224  billion

PDUFA and MDUFMA are expected to be renewed in FY 12 with higher revenue targets. With so much pressure on appropriations, Congress will be tempted to see user fees as the answer to FDA’s growing funding needs. However, user fees are only available for specific purposes and do not support FDA’s full mission.

Further, Congress has no qualms about increasing the amount of user fees, then bemoaning the agency’s increasing reliance on industry funding.  This is not a situation where “all money is green.” Increases in appropriated funding are still critical to a well-functioning FDA.

Delays in Enacting User Fee Legislation and the Possible Impact of Unfunded Mandates. FDA’s future funding is further obscured by the nature of the process of renewing the user fee programs. For example, delays in adopting legislation could result in funding shortages in early FY 13, making it harder for FDA to fulfill its obligations. In turn, this will contribute to Congressional concerns about whether FDA is spending monies efficiently and effectively.

Further, Congress “must pass” renewal of user fee programs in 2012, creating a situation where multiple FDA-related amendments are certain to be considered. Such amendments, if they become law, are likely to expand the agency’s responsibilities without adding additional funds for implementation.


Here are November 2011 columns you may have missed:

Animal Research: An Update on One of FDA’s Core Values     November 22nd, 2011

Bold Discussions: Possible New Approval Pathways for Breakthrough Drugs November 14th, 2011

By Whose Standards: FDA’s Identity Crisis and the Level Playing Field  November 7th, 2011

Animal Research: An Update on One of FDA’s Core Values

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

The value of animal research in the life sciences is considered an NIH issue. FDA Matters believes that FDA and its stakeholders should be equally involved.

Animal research is the vital first step in the development of new medical products. Before any safety or efficacy testing is permitted in humans, FDA must be satisfied with animal testing data submitted by the product sponsor. Pick any medical breakthrough and you will find animals were tested prior to humans.

For understandable reasons, we tend to focus on the human part of new products. Which patients will be helped and by how much? By the time a company files a New Drug Application (NDA) or the equivalent in biologics and devices, the headline is the human data. While the animal data is always relevant, it has largely served its purpose as the gateway for human trials.

We talk about the people part without recognizing that the pipeline of innovative drugs and devices would collapse if a broad range of research on animals (e.g. non-human primates, pigs, sheep, dogs, rats, mice, zebrafish, fruit flies, worms) was heavily restricted. Over 96% of the animals used in biomedical research are rodents, birds, fish and invertebrates. As background, there is an excellent summary on the need for animal research available from the advocacy organization, Americans for Medical Progress.

Everybody should be for protecting the welfare of animals. Any means to lessen our dependence on research animals should be welcome. Animals should always be treated ethically and pain reduced or eliminated. The fewest number of animals should be used to reach a conclusion that can be relied upon. Laboratories should be accredited and subject to inspection. Problems should be addressed within a facility under the watchful eye of government, accrediting and licensing agencies and in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act.

Since I last wrote on this topic two years ago, the nature of the animal rights movement in the United States has shifted. Successful prosecutions under the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) have purged some of the more violent elements of the movement and discouraged others from engaging in destructive acts. However, a small number of activists still use tactics of harassment, intimidation, and vandalism against some research scientists and veterinarians involved in working with laboratory animals.

Many of the research advocacy groups say a greater threat to medical progress is proposed state and federal legislation, often authored by animal rights lobbyists, that has little to do with animal welfare but rather seeks to restrict or raise the cost of animal-based research. An example is The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act legislation, which continues to draw strong support in Congress. As of April 29, 2012, the House version (HR 1513) has 165 sponsors and the Senate version (S 810) has 14 sponsors.  

These bills would virtually eliminate chimpanzee research, which includes work in vaccines, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, malaria and some types of cancers. Although we use only a comparatively small number of chimpanzees in animal research, I am told that the work often provides essential information that cannot be obtained in any other way.

While the legislation is purportedly about animal welfare, these bills are really designed to limit the biomedical research that we all support and which, we hope, results in FDA-approved medical products.

For me, the choice is easy. I want a product or procedure tested in animals before it is given to me or my loved ones. I believe in protecting animals, but human rights come first.

The importance of animal research needs to be a core value for FDA. Those who benefit from animal research (including patients and industry) need to provide the manpower and financial resources to counter the animal rights movement in America and its threat to medical progress for humans.


Bold Discussions: Possible New Approval Pathways for Breakthrough Drugs

Monday, November 14th, 2011

For discussion purposes, let’s assume that there is a broad consensus that patients would benefit if new drugs and devices could get to the US market sooner. Current market barriers can be fearsome: long timeframes, high cost and regulatory uncertainty.  How can we fix this problem? What costs and risks are involved in getting products to patients faster?

These are old questions, renewed this year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s (BIO) proposal to create a “progressive approval” process. This is controversial, but also worthy of widespread discussion. FDA Matters finds itself interested and open-minded about ways to permit earlier market-access if patients will benefit and the safety risk minimized.

Currently, FDA has several mechanisms for helping drugs move faster through the approval process, but only one might be said to be an alternative pathway. FDA describes it as follows:

ACCELERATED APPROVAL:  [I]n 1992 FDA instituted the Accelerated Approval regulation, allowing earlier approval of drugs to treat serious diseases, and that fill an unmet medical need based on a surrogate endpoint….For example…FDA might now approve a drug based on evidence that the drug shrinks tumors because tumor shrinkage is considered reasonably likely to predict a real clinical benefit [e.g. prolonged survival].

Since creation of the program, FDA has granted an average of about four accelerated approvals to drugs each year, sometimes for more than one clinical indication. More than half of these indications have been shown subsequently to have clinical benefit and FDA has converted the approval from accelerated to regular. Others accelerated approval drugs are still being studied and a few have been withdrawn.  

FDA has itself shown interest in moving beyond accelerated approval. Early this fall, FDA released a report, Driving Biomedical Innovation: Initiatives to Improve Products for Patients. In a section entitled “Expedited Drug Development Pathway,” the agency observes:

Sometimes during the development of a new drug to treat a serious or life-threatening disease that has few therapeutic options, the new treatment performs much better than standard-of-care in the early trials. While there is general agreement that such a drug should be developed quickly, there is not a common understanding of how to appropriately speed up development while simultaneously gathering adequate evidence about the performance of the product.

FDA envisions a series of meeting with stakeholders to develop this concept and answer a number of difficult questions about the nature of a new pathway and how it could be implemented.

Consistent with this, BIO had already been talking about transforming the FDA approval process by permitting a “progressive approval” and market access for innovative products that:

  • treat an unmet medical need,
  • significantly advance the standard of care, or
  • are highly targeted therapies for distinct sub-populations.

The November 11, 2011 BioCentury reported that Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) will be circulating draft legislation to create two new FDA approval pathways, presumably beginning the process of providing details for BIO’s concept. Here are the new approaches:

  • Progressive approval would require data "reasonably likely" to predict clinical benefit, the standard currently used for accelerated approval. Unlike accelerated approval, drugs could receive progressive approval without data from a surrogate endpoint.
  • Exceptional approval could be granted when the data necessary to satisfy the standard for approval "cannot ethically, feasibly or practicably be generated."

Much more needs to be said about how these would be implemented. In particular, it is not uncommon for a drug to produce solid safety data and/or startlingly good efficacy data in phase 2 (preliminary human trials), then fail in phase 3 (clinical trials to support approval).

Even after we see the bill text, the BIO/Hagan effort must still be seen as a conversation starter. But it is a discussion well worth having.


Of possible interest to readers:

While the accelerated approval approach has been successful, it also raises a host of methodological questions. One of the best critiques is Professor Tom Fleming’s Surrogate Endpoints And FDA’s Accelerated Approval Process (Health Affairs, 2005).


By Whose Standards: FDA’s Identity Crisis and the Level Playing Field

Monday, November 7th, 2011


FDA advances public health, protects consumers, regulates products and is an important force in our national economy. Now, FDA is being challenged by Congress and the President to justify itself as a positive force in the advancement of American innovation and as a contributor to US competitiveness.


This is precipitating an identity crisis at FDA. The agency is constantly establishing new standards (and revising old ones) that will protect consumers and bring new therapies to patients. Now it must also consider whether it is unduly impeding American industry.  As this forces FDA to rethink who it is and what it stands for, FDA Matters believes a different FDA will emerge.


The Need for Standards.  Most of FDA’s authority has been granted by Congress in response to marketplace abuses that had led to harmful products becoming commonplace. In each case, FDA has used that authority to set standards that all products must meet, creating a level playing field for industry. As a result, producers of quality products are assured that their competitors will also have to meet standards. 


How important is this effect? A manufacturer in a highly-competitive, FDA- regulated industry once told me: to survive as a business, our upper boundary is limited by what our most foolish competitor offers for sale. FDA standards (and enforcement of those standards) are what assures that both the well-intended and the foolish deliver products that are at or above a defined level of quality and surety.


We mostly take the benefits of a level playing field for granted. Yet, greed, carelessness and malevolence are always at work behind the scenes trying to create a profitable advantage out of substandard products (e.g. counterfeiting, ingredient substitution).  


Abuses aren’t limited to product manufacturing and distribution. Unsafe and ineffective products also result if standards aren’t created and enforced for clinical trial management, proof of efficacy, acceptable clinical trial designs, food additives, data reporting integrity, post-market surveillance and so on. Having these standards also assures fair competition among companies.


The Standards Crisis. By creating, applying and enforcing the highest standards, FDA wants to be seen as the primary force in assuring that Americans have the safest food supply and the safest and most effective therapies anywhere in the world. The agency aspires to always be “the gold standard” for the world.


Two sets of circumstances are forcing the FDA to rethink this particular sense of purpose and self-image. As a result, an identity crisis is slowly building within the agency. 


First, the “highest” standard is rarely the best way to stimulate innovation. If FDA had chosen the toughest, most protective and most restrictive standards in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the biotechnology industry might not exist today. (see FDA and Things that Might Go Bump in the Night).


The agency faces this same challenge in creating the highest standards that nonetheless help advance nanotechnology, open new vistas in diagnostics and genomics, and encourage breakthroughs in drugs or medical devices. The tension between the “highest standards” and “reasonable and appropriate standards” is a visible and palpable part of the current controversy over revising medical device categories and approval standards. (see Medical Device Melodrama: A Great Story With a New Plot Twist)


Second, there is no global force that levels the playing field among each nation’s regulatory agencies…the way FDA levels the playing field for companies and products in the US market. Efforts at international harmonization of regulatory standards have stretched into decades. Without global standards, there are differences in requirements and even greater differences in interpretation in each national marketplace.


FDA knows that setting standards substantially higher than other nations creates the risk that other countries will introduce new products first. It also makes it more likely those countries can attract more industry, capital and jobs in the global economy. Apart from the issue of bragging rights over whether a drug or device was approved first in the US, considerations of international competition (versus cooperation) have been peripheral, at best, to FDA’s identity.


Conclusion. Right now, FDA is struggling to show that it can be all these things: the gold standard, the toughest, the best, the stimulator of innovation and the advocate for companies and products that meet American standards.


Ultimately, FDA will reconcile these roles because it has no choice. The resulting FDA will not necessarily be better or worse. The change may be dramatic or subtle. The only certainty is FDA’s identity will be different.  



A Salmon on Every Plate

Monday, October 17th, 2011


President Herbert Hoover supposedly promised Americans “a chicken in every pot” during his 1928 campaign. Chicken was an expensive delicacy then, so his message was about raising living standards, not ending hunger. Today, chicken is a low-cost source of protein and a mainstay of the American diet.


FDA Matters hopes that salmon (and other fish) will also become sources of low-cost protein over the next two decades. FDA is nearing the end of a long regulatory process, the outcome of which could be approval of a faster growing genetically-engineered Atlantic salmon. FDA must overcome opposition from environmental groups…and politicians and companies trying to protect the market for Pacific salmon.


The health benefits of fish are well-known. They are also a valuable source of dietary protein. However, our oceans are over-fished and aquaculture is now the source of almost 50% of the fish consumed worldwide. Expanding the availability of fish products meets a growing demand and is an important component of improved nutrition for Americans.


The proposal before FDA is for a genetically-engineered (GE) salmon that is biologically and chemically identical to the Atlantic salmon that is served in restaurants and at our own tables. The only difference is the inclusion of a Chinook salmon gene that provides the potential to grow Atlantic salmon to market size in about half the time.


Opponents have labeled the product as “Franken-fish.” It’s a catchy slogan that tries to vilify over a decade of scientific research and discredit several years of FDA review. Ultimately, the appeal is to emotion—that something dramatically new and different must automatically be dangerous. Decisions about new and different products are hard for FDA, as I wrote a few week weeks ago in a column entitled: “FDA and Things that Might Go Bump in the Night.”  


Approval of genetically-engineered animals will always require serious consideration of safety, environmental and ethical issues.  In this case—FDA’s first application for approval of a GE food product–the agency has been fortunate to have what might be considered a favorable factual context. No one questions the legitimate demands for more plentiful, high quality supplies of salmon. Further, the sponsor has agreed upon multiple redundant safeguards. For example, the GE salmon will be only sterile females and will be grown in inland fisheries with no access to either wild or farmed salmon stocks.


FDA has done its homework—digging deep into the relevant science and taking the time to consider all aspects of the issue. An agency decision is considered imminent and likely to be favorable….unless Congress tells it otherwise. A showdown may occur this week when the Senate considers the FY 12 appropriations bill for the Agriculture Department and FDA.


The House version already contains restrictive language forbidding the agency from spending any of its FY 12 monies to approve the application. However, according to some reports, only about a dozen Representatives were present when the amendment was adopted by voice vote during floor consideration.


In contrast, when the issue comes before the Senate this week, there will be debate and almost certainly a vote. Currently, about a dozen Senators are known to support the ban, with most of them from Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington, states that are the primary sources of Pacific salmon sold in the United States. 


Healthy, affordable high-protein food is always a desirable dietary option. At some time in the future, salmon could be as affordable as chicken if we allow the development of salmon that can be grown faster.  


The current fight is not just about “a salmon on every plate.” It is also about whether Congress will substitute its political judgments for FDA’s scientific decisionmaking. FDA Matters hopes that enough Senators will vote for FDA and against regional economic interests that want to protect existing sources of salmon production.



More information about salmon, aquaculture regulation of genetically-engineered foods and the current controversy can be found at: http://www.fda.gov/AdvisoryCommittees/CommitteesMeetingMaterials/VeterinaryMedicineAdvisoryCommittee/ucm222635.htm and http://www.aquabounty.com/PressRoom/#l7

FDA and Things that Might Go Bump in the Night      September 18th, 2011

FDA’s everyday business requires balancing risk and benefit as these might apply to a particular medical product or a new food. Occasionally, FDA is faced with a much larger responsibility: judging a breakthrough technology that could bring great benefit or great sorrow to humankind. Who can confidently know in advance which it will be?

Still, FDA must decide. If they say “yes,” whole new industries and benefit may be created for patients and consumers. Or, the world and humankind may be subject to devastation. Today, the agency is faced with just such challenges in dealing with nanotechnology, genetically-engineered (GE) animals, and synthetic biology. Read the rest of this entry

Should Money Have a Seat at the FDA Table?

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

FDA’s traditional stakeholders are patients, consumers, health professionals, and industry.  Add Congress, media and other government agencies and you have the full set of FDA audiences. What they all have in common: a commitment to the public and individual health of Americans.

While FDA’s focus is health and safety, almost every decision has economic consequences.  Money is never far from the surface. Yet, to my knowledge, Wall Street has never been treated as a stakeholder or an audience of FDA. Now a variant has emerged: organized efforts by venture capitalists (VC) to affect how FDA evaluates drugs, biologics and devices.

Why do VCs care about FDA? Venture capital is financial capital provided to early-stage, high-potential, high risk, growth companies, usually start-ups. Such funding plays a critical role in a large number of medical products that FDA reviews for market approval.

If FDA is more open to innovation and new technology, venture capital firms are more likely to invest in medical product companies in the United States. Conversely, a hesitant, overly cautious FDA makes it more likely that venture capital monies will be used to fund information technology, telecommunications and software companies, rather than life-sciences companies.

What is the VC community doing now about FDA?  Last week, the Medical Innovation and Competitiveness Coalition held a press event, releasing a survey they had conducted in partnership with the National Venture Capital Association. www.nvca.org/vital_signs_data_slides.pdf

In attendance were Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), both members of the Senate Committee with jurisdiction over FDA. The Senators’ interest is the prominent role that small companies and venture capital play in economic growth and job formation.

The survey of venture capital firms found a significant decreased commitment to investment in life sciences over the past 3 years, with more dollars aimed at overseas projects. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The chief reason [for decreased investment], according to most of the 156 venture firms surveyed, is dysfunction at the Food and Drug Administration, an agency investors say is so unpredictable and risk-averse that young companies are now inclined to merely give up on trying to get on the market in the U.S.

This is definitely attention-getting, but needs to be seen in context. VCs are the FDA’s natural critics. Having invested millions of dollars (and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars) in a company’s science and product pipeline, VCs are more likely to see product failures as a result of FDA deficiencies than their own failures to back successful products.  

However, the survey may still have a point….and VCs can be a powerful voice for a stronger, more predictable, science-based FDA.

How has FDA responded?  The Obama Administration has emphasized the importance of innovation in building the US economy. There is some question about the effectiveness of that effort overall, but it has been a serious theme at FDA under Commissioner Hamburg.

Last week, Commissioner Hamburg unveiled FDA’s new initiatives to spur biomedical innovation and improve the health of Americans. According to FDA’s press release, this is FDA’s blueprint for addressing “concerns about the sustainability of the medical product development pipeline, which is slowing down despite record investments in research and development.”

Should “money” have a seat at the table among FDA stakeholders?  Companies and individuals seeking “return-on-investment” are significant contributors to making medical progress possible. VCs are the natural allies of an FDA that wants to be a strong, science-based agency and is willing to admit that its process and judgments can always be made better.

FDA needs to carefully consider the critique being offered by the VC community. FDA Matters supports FDA in its willingness to do so.   


Why is it so hard for investors to pick winners? Why is it so hard for FDA to be flexible?    

Complexity, Uncertainty, Unpredictability: Not Necessarily Bars to FDA Approvals   July 17th, 2011

In most discussions of science and medicine, there is an implicit assumption that the human body is a machine—complex and biological, but still a machine. “The human body as a machine” is a metaphor, not a fact. Once we accept this, FDA Matters believes we can become liberated from unrealistic expectations about medical discovery and FDA’s role as a gatekeeper for new products that benefit patients.  Read the rest of this entry

Can FDA Survive the Next Round of User Fee Legislation?

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

If FDA is to have sufficient money to operate in fiscal year 2013 (and thereafter), drug and device user fee legislation must pass Congress next Spring. That is the immovable object of the agency’s future. To pass legislation, Congress will need to plow through dozens of amendments touching every aspect of FDA and the industries it regulates. This is the irresistible force of Congress.

What happens when this irresistible force meets this immovable object? Something will need to give. FDA Matters hopes it will not be FDA’s ability to carry out its mission.   

The threat to FDA is created by two constraints imposed on the legislative process to reauthorize drug and medical device user fees.

First, the legislation needs to pass at least 90 days before the existing user fee programs expire on September 30, 2012 (i.e. by June 2012). During the last renewal cycle five years ago, the legislation wasn’t signed into law until September 21. As a result, FDA had to delay hiring new staff and the agency was compromised in its ability to implement the new law during the first year of the cycle.  

This time, there may be greater awareness by Congress of the problems created by delayed passage of the user fee legislation. However, this Congress has (thus far) a poor track record of reaching compromises on even simple matters and has demonstrated serious problems meeting deadlines.

Second, the user fee legislation is likely to be the only FDA-related legislation that “must pass” during this Congress (2011-2012). It provides Members of Congress a “one-time only” opportunity to advance their favorite issue or concern about FDA.

A partial list might include: drug re-importation; the exclusivity provisions of the new biosimilars law; approval of genetically-engineered salmon; regulation of dietary supplements; changes in the way that medical devices are regulated; and the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in consumer products.  In addition, Congress now has some Members who might offer more fundamental amendments, such as revising FDA’s authority to review the efficacy of drug products.

The user fee reauthorization legislation will essentially have two parts. The core bill (“the inner bill”) will include renewals of drug and device user fees and adoption of new fees for generic drugs and other programs. In the best case, disagreements on these programs will be negotiable and compromises found.

Any additional amendments (“the outer bill”) are problematic. There may be some areas of agreement, such as new authority for drug import inspections, incentives for development of antibiotics, and provisions for addressing drug shortages.

However, as mentioned above, the outer bill will face a pent-up demand for resolution of controversial FDA-related issues. The House and Senate committees and leadership are going to have to deal with the onslaught—by allowing votes, negotiating compromises or adopting procedural barriers to prevent consideration of their colleagues’ amendments.

The risk for FDA is twofold. Even if “the inner bill” can be moved without problems, a lot of time will be required to deal with “the outer bill.” The clock will be ticking and June 2012 will arrive quickly. If Congress misses, FDA will be hurt. The longer it takes, the greater the damage.

Second, no one can predict which of the items proposed for “the outer bill” might be adopted. Some may make important and possibly undesirable changes in the agency’s mission and activities.   

Reauthorization of FDA’s user fee programs is essential, but difficulties are unavoidable and extend well beyond the fees themselves. FDA needs to be talking now with its many Congressional friends—not just about the details of the inevitable clash, but how to control the battle so it doesn’t get out of hand.


“Must-Pass Legislation” Key to FDA’s Future     December 12th, 2010

FDA Matters believes that the 2010 election will profoundly affect the FDA’s mission, priorities, funding, standards and work flow. Eighteen months from now, FDA’s leadership team will probably be the same, but the agency won’t be.

Identifying and understanding the likely changes to FDA requires examining the meaning of “must-pass legislation” and its escalating importance as a quarrelsome Congress turns into a divided Congress. At the moment, there is only one “must-pass” item on Congress’ FDA agenda: the next round of user fee renewals that will come before Congress in the Spring of 2012.  Read the rest of this entry

It’s Time to Change CDER Funding   September 17th, 2009

I did some crunching of FDA budget numbers for my column earlier this week on the Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA). A by-product of my efforts was an analysis of how the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) is funded. We often hear how dependent CDER is on user fees. The actual numbers are startling and deserve to be well-aired. Read the rest of this entry

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