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Archive for the ‘Drug Approval and Access’ Category

FDA Matters Mailbag: Hatch-Waxman, Biosimilars, User Fees and More

Sunday, February 19th, 2012


Over the last month, FDA Matters has covered a wide-range of FDA-related topics: the agency, industry, and Congress, as well as medical innovation, user fee reauthorization legislation, food safety and post-market surveillance. The response has been great: FDA Matters has many new readers and I received a number of interesting questions.


Today’s column touches on biosimilars, Hatch-Waxman, user fees and FDA management. Keep the questions coming!


Is FDA becoming too large for food, drugs and medical devices to be in the same agency?


Last summer, the Commissioner re-organized her office to better manage the growing responsibilities and complexity of the agency’s work. She divided the agency’s work into four parts:

  • food and veterinary medicine
  • medical products
  • global outreach and inspection, and
  • administrative matters overseen by a chief operating officer 

The key is that each of these individuals has line authority to manage their part of the agency, rather than being a staff advisor to the Commissioner.  


With specific regard to foods, there are proposals to move the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) out of FDA. I believe the Center is best served by being part of the public health focus of FDA.


How do Europe and the US compare in their approaches to biosimilars?


Both the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and FDA are acting cautiously, but in different ways. Europe has focused on a limited number of reference products, building their knowledge and experience one therapeutic category at a time.


In contrast, FDA has already met with sponsors to discuss 11 reference products, presumably covering a number of therapeutic categories. Given FDA’s broader approach, proceeding case-by-case with strong scientific requirements is the best way for FDA to acquire knowledge and experience.


A different comparison was also posed to me: an eager EMA versus a reluctant FDA.  In less than two years, FDA has produced multiple policy speeches and articles, three guidances, held multiple sponsor meetings and allowed several sponsors to begin work. I assure you: FDA is fully committed to biosimilars!


As an aside, anyone familiar with the lack of FDA guidance on product-related social media can tell you how FDA behaves when it is reluctant to act. It looks quite different.


If the user fee reauthorization legislation has the potential to be a vehicle for any FDA-related provision, might Congress re-open Hatch-Waxman?


I shudder at the possibility, but can’t rule it out. I asked a knowledgeable friend what he would propose if given the chance to amend Hatch-Waxman. His reply: get FDA out of the patent enforcement business, yet assure generics the equivalent of the 180-day exclusivity if they win in court.


Since this would benefit generics, a trade-off for innovators could be longer exclusivity for new molecular entity (NME) compounds that lack intellectual property (IP) protection. It might be the same 10 years they receive in the EU or the 12 years for biologics. Similarly, a stronger incentive than 5 to 7 years is needed to generate interest in 505 (b)(2) drug applications in the absence of IP protection. 


I’m not suggesting this, but thought it interesting enough to give his ideas some visibility.


Companies are telling me: it’s hard to justify investing in the US biosimilars market because of the resources it will require. Why is FDA Matters so optimistic?


I hear some of this, too. Certainly, the first generation of biosimilar applicants (and there seem to be plenty of them) are going to pay more–and live with more uncertainty for a longer period of time– than those that start 5 years from now when costs have dropped.


However, those who are successful are going to be rewarded, as I explored more fully in How Biosimilars Will Transform the Marketplace. Put simply:


  • If the first biosimilar approvals from FDA are for solid products with good data and fair pricing, then hospital purchasing groups, pharmaceutical benefit managers and formulary committees are going to move significant market share away from the reference products.

  • In multi-product categories, the market shift may be even greater because there will be therapeutic substitution, not just substitution of the biosimilar for the reference drug.

 I look forward to more reader questions!



FDA Guidance on Biosimilars: The Two Minute Version

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

If you are in the business of developing biosimilar products—or thinking about it—then you have to read all three guidance documents published by FDA on February 9, 2012. They provide essential (but not complete) instructions for how to construct and implement a biosimilar development plan.


For everyone else, FDA Matters is providing the short version. Why take an interest? Because over the next 5 to 15 years, biosimilars are going to dramatically transform the marketplacefor biological products, creating new winners and losers. Also, these new rules are going to lead to new, groundbreaking medicines…and not just less expensive versions of old ones.


Nearly two years ago, Congress passed the “Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act” (BPCIA) to create an abbreviated approval pathway for biosimilars, which are highly-similar copies of already marketed, complex, large molecule biological products. This is a distinct from making exact copies (generics) of relatively simple, small molecule drug products, whose abbreviated pathway to market was created in 1984 (under the Hatch-Waxman legislation).


Even without FDA formal guidance, companies have begun the process of entering the biosimilars market in the US. Thus far, FDA has received early-stage meeting requests for 35 proposed biosimilars that would relate to 11 reference products (innovator biologic products that are already on the market). About 60% of those meetings have been held and 9 investigational new drug (IND) applications have been received.


The three FDA guidance documents, described in this FDA Fact Sheet, are:

• Scientific Considerations in Demonstrating Biosimilarity to a Reference Product

• Quality Considerations in Demonstrating Biosimilarity to a Reference Protein Product

• Biosimilars: Questions and Answers Regarding Implementation of the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act of 2009


As FDA Matters envisioned when the BPCIA was passed, FDA will handle every biosimilar application on a product-specific basis. Two major concepts embody this approach:

  • The agency expects sponsors to take a “step-wise approach,” starting with the structural and functional characterization of the biosimilar and reference molecules, then determine “the residual uncertainty about the biosimilarity of the proposed product and identify next steps to try to address that uncertainty.” The strength of the analytic proof of similarity and the degree of uncertainty will determine the required amount and type of animal and human testing.
  • The agency plans to look at the “totality of the evidence” presented by each sponsor.  Every application must include certain elements–structural and functional characterization of the molecule, nonclinical evaluation, human PK and PD data, clinical immunogenicity data, and clinical safety and effectiveness data—but they will be weighed by the overall degree to which they support similarity, rather than by any pre-determined formula.

The law also allows for biosimilars to be deemed “interchangeable” with the reference product. In these guidance documents, FDA has effectively said that sponsors must establish biosimilarity first, and then present additional evidence of interchangeability.


In sum, the guidance documents lay out a daunting, but still feasible pathway for approval of a biosimilar. The first approvals will come slowly over the next 2 or 3 years, and then accelerate after FDA and sponsor companies have more experience.


What about the part where the FDA guidance documents on biosimilars eventually result in new, groundbreaking medicines? The key to approval of a biosimilar is to be able to characterize the structure and function of specific biological molecules and, also, to define the conditions under which the human body is likely to reject a large molecule biologic as a foreign substance (immunogenicity).  


These requirements are forcing companies to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in order to better understand human biology and therapeutic biological products. That knowledge is going to make it possible to find and create wholly new therapies, as well as develop significantly better versions of existing medicines.


We are likely to have biosimilars approved long before this impact hits. However, in about six to ten years, we should see the start of a wave of groundbreaking new medicines that emerge from knowledge that was gained as a by-product of creating biosimilars.   



For a longer commentary on the new biosimilar guidances, I recommend: First Bio-Similars Guidance Issued by FDA by James Czaban at the Wiley, Rein law firm.

FDA and Industry Relations: A Mix of Frustration and Respect

Monday, February 6th, 2012

There is no one answer to the question: what is the state of FDA-industry relations? FDA Matters hears some say: FDA does what industry asks it to do, the agency is a puppet. Others say that FDA is obstinately blocking industries’ path to new, better and innovative products. Yet others say FDA is misguided at points, but well-intentioned and most often right.

The state of FDA-industry relations turns out to be particularly important in 2012. As part of the user fee reauthorization legislation, Congress will be faced with non-user fee amendments affecting every aspect of FDA’s mission, programs and decisions. Industry will be advocating for some; trying to block others, based in part on its relationship with FDA.   

Looking at the situation superficially:

  • FDA and the biopharmaceutical industry would appear to be on good terms. Negotiating the language and terms of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA) reauthorization went relatively smoothly and the agreement addresses a number of industry concerns
  • FDA and the medical device industry would appear to be on shaky terms, at best. The negotiations on the reauthorization of the Medical Devices User Fee Act (MDUFA) have been extended and contentious. Only in the last few days has there been an agreement in principle on a proposal for MDUFA reauthorization.    
  • FDA and the food industry would appear to be on excellent terms. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed in late December 2010. Consumers and most of industry supported the legislation and there has been cooperation by industry on implementation.

In each case, things are more complicated beneath the surface.

Drugs and biologics. Industry is broadly supporting FDA’s proposal for reauthorization of PDUFA, having helped negotiate a number of provisions that will improve the drug development, review and approval model used by the agency. When it comes to the additional amendments to be considered by Congress, the unanimity is already breaking down.  

For example, during 2011, The Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO) released a series of proposals for improving FDA. FDA Matters praised BIO for putting forth a bold agenda, while seeing its centerpiece proposal, a new “progressive approval” pathway, as only a starting point for discussion. In a tacit acknowledgement of FDA opposition (not publicly expressed by FDA) and industry dissension, BIO has recently started advocating instead for changes in the existing FDA accelerated approval process.

Medical devices. The difficult relationship between FDA and the medical device industry is long-standing. Both sides have been able to talk, often quite productively, but ultimately the device industry returns to its default position that the FDA needs to be held accountable for its inconsistent guidance and lack of timeliness in its reviews.

The just-released MDUFA reauthorization agreement in principle (in the form of FDA meeting notes) looks like it can bridge the gap that has divided FDA and the medical device industry…or at least that’s my interpretation of industry and FDA press statements.  However, Congress may yet amend the proposal if industry proves divided  in its support.  As to non-user fee amendments in the medical device area, it is to be assumed (given the history) that they will tend toward contentious, with FDA on the defensive.

Food.  Public discussion of the user fee reauthorization legislation has focused on drug and medical device issues, but nothing prevents food from becoming part of the mix. Any issues or amendments left over from the FSMA debate are fair game, as would anything that went into the final legislation despite objection from FDA or some interest group.  

One of the most prominent “leftover” issues is the extent of fees collected from the food industry to support FDA activities (merely calling them “user fees” is enough to generate a heated discussion). While the issue may come up regardless, there is a strong chance that the President’s budget request will contain legislative proposals for new food fees, starting in FY 13.

Conclusion. As the user fee reauthorization legislation moves forward, it may be too much to ask for fair debate, FDA-industry harmony, and quick resolution of outstanding issues. Time is of the essence—the real deadline is closer to July 1 than September 30

It would also be wonderful if all parties (including Congress and industry) would stick with the issues and refrain from bashing FDA. 


User Fee Reauthorization: FDA Is In Trouble If 2007 Repeats Itself

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Starting this week, the House will hold hearings on reauthorizing the drug and medical device user fee programs that fund one-fourth of the agency. While user fees have become largely non-controversial, this “must-pass” legislation is Congress’ opportunity to consider dozens of other FDA issues, some controversial and many time-consuming.

During the last user fee reauthorization in 2007, multiple non-user fee issues delayed enactment of a new law until September 27, just a few days before the start of the new fiscal year. In FDA Matters’ view, FDA is in serious trouble in 2012 if it once again takes until September to complete the user fee reauthorization legislation.  

There are two user fee programs up for reauthorization this year: the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA) and the Medical Device User Fee Act (MDUFA). In addition, two new user fee programs have been proposed by FDA. One covers generic drugs and the other biosimilars and interchangeable biologics.

If only these four user fees were at stake (two renewals, two new), Congress could conceivably be finished by July 1, 2012. This would be optimum for giving FDA enough time to invoice and collect the user fees for the coming fiscal year (FY 13). It would also give FDA time to start making new hires and to work on any additional requirements in the new law. A lot of things could be in place by the start of the fiscal year on October 1, 2012.

However, almost no FDA legislation has passed since the last reauthorization five years ago. Pent-up demand for FDA amendments is enormous and delays are to be expected. July 1 does not look like a realistic target to complete legislation.

What happened in 2007 is beyond instructive, it is frightening. As a general precaution, FDA left many staff positions vacant during 2007, just in case the user fee monies were not renewed. As required by law, FDA compiled lists of employees it could not pay if user fee monies were not available on October 1, 2007. The agency narrowly avoided actually having to send out RIF (lay-off) notices to individual employees. While the RIF process was a formality, this created a great deal of distraction within the agency. 

Simultaneously, the timing for invoicing companies and collecting fees was disrupted and fee revenue was not collected, as it usually is, by October 1. While FDA was dealing with this (which required delays in hiring), it faced the harsh reality that many provisions of the new law became effective immediately and had to be addressed with existing staff.

Memories seem to vary about the impact in 2007. I remember significant problems; others have told me the disruption was not consequential. In fact, there is direct evidence of the impact.

Below is a slide from a December 2011 presentation given by Dr. John Jenkins, head of the Office of New Drugs (OND) in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). His intent was not to focus on 2007 or to draw comparisons, but the point seems quite clear.

The chart shows the number of pending drug applications on which FDA was behind schedule (as judged by the timeframes established in the user fee law). The green bars represent the most important applications, those involving new molecular entities (NMEs). The light blue bars represent other drug and biologics applications, while the violet bars represent applications for additional efficacy indications.

A backlog started to form in the second half of 2007. It increased significantly and lasted for more than 24 months. There may well have been other factors at work, but it seems more than a coincidence that the problems started at the same time as the disruption caused by the new law.

If 2012 becomes a repeat of 2007, then FDA will find itself under withering criticism later this year for not reviewing innovative drug applications in a timely fashion. Medical device are likely to be similarly impacted. FDA will be unhappy, companies with pending applications will be outraged, and patients will be short-changed as potential new therapies are delayed.

Congress needs to commit to speed up the process, minimize amendments, and make new provisions effective six months or a year after enactment. What is possible by July 1 is a House-Senate agreement on a very limited piece of non-controversial legislation that addresses user fees and perhaps one or two other items.

It is a disservice to FDA and the public health for Congress to do otherwise.


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.

Medical Innovation, Food Safety, and Imports: Did FDA Have A Good Year in 2011?

Monday, January 16th, 2012

 Before turning to 2012, FDA Matters wanted to take one more look at FDA’s performance in 2011. So much happens at FDA that it’s easy to lose perspective. And no matter what the agency does, somebody will be unhappy. So, should Commissioner Hamburg feel good about the last 12 months?


FDA Matters thinks it comes down to how well FDA handled the three most important challenges it faced:

  • improving the medical product review process, including stimulating innovation;
  • implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act; and
  • advancing the agency’s ability to assure the safety of imports.

Before exploring these particulars, FDA Matters feels FDA staff and Dr. Hamburg should be applauded just for surviving the daily grinding pressure of the agency’s workload. As I have noted previously, FDA’s greatest strength is its people.

Medical Product Review Processes. Was it a good year? The approval process for drugs, biologics and medical devices elicited widespread criticism that FDA was too slow, too risk-averse, underweighted patient benefit, and was demanding certainty where none was possible. The unhappiness was constant and palpable from medical device stakeholders; more muted, but still quite strong among bio-pharmaceutical stakeholders.


As the year went on, this critique of the agency increasingly coalesced under the rubric of innovation. Specifically, FDA was accused of creating processes and making decisions that stifle American innovation and cost American jobs.

FDA formulated its response in several ways:

Optimistically, I believe these actions are the start of a turning point for the agency. The largest barrier is not agency leadership’s willingness to promote innovation…rather it is that combining public health and innovation requires a new identity for the agency, something that can't happen overnight.


Food Safety. Was it a good year? At the very end of 2010, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which creates a sophisticated risk-based food safety system that stretches from the farm to our tables. The new law created or enhanced FDA authority in the following areas: prevention, inspection and compliance, response to problems, imports, and enhanced partnerships with other food safety agencies.


Implementing the new law is a complex multi-faceted task that has been made even more difficult by inadequate funding. Further, many of the new law’s mandates became effective quickly, leaving little opportunity for manpower and IT resources to be mustered to the tasks.


The agency just released its one-year progress report and there seems to be general consensus that the agency has done a tough job well. Year two (2012) will be at least as challenging, but we are definitely one-year closer to a safer food supply.

Imports. Was it a good year? The third major challenge to FDA in 2011 was continuous rapid globalization of the world markets for food, drugs, and medical devices. Almost every country in the world produces raw materials, ingredients or finished goods that become part of imported products regulated by the FDA.  


In July 2011, the FDA issued a special report, Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality, which describes the enormous impact of globalization on FDA-regulated products. FDA is responding through:

  • closer partnerships with its foreign counterparts and public-and private-sector third parties,
  • development of global data information systems,
  • continued expansion of its capabilities in intelligence gathering, and
  • allocation of agency resources based on the risk of a food safety problem.

During 2011, the agency further expanded its network of overseas offices and reorganized its headquarters oversight. The latter was accomplished by appointing Deborah Autor as the new Deputy Commissioner for Global Regulatory Operations and Policy.   

Conclusions. In upcoming columns, we will be detailing the challenges facing FDA in 2012. Meantime, we urge Dr. Hamburg and all of FDA to take a moment to think back with pride to 2011. You had a good year.


Post-Market Safety: Can Sentinel Do Some of the Heavy Lifting?

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012


In the FDA-regulated world, success is often defined as approval of a new product or indication based on two, well-controlled clinical trials. However, the scrutiny doesn’t end there. FDA’s mission includes determining whether already-approved drugs perform safely and effectively when used by large numbers of patients in routine medical practice. 


To understand what happens under these “real world conditions,” FDA has expanded its post-market  efforts, including development of a monitoring system (called Sentinel) that will be able to track drug usage and medical history information on tens of millions of patients. Although such information will be useful, it can only provide post-hoc inferences, not proof of causation. Even with this limitation, FDA Matters thinks developing the system is worthwhile and may provide multiple benefits. 


There are multiple tools for assessing post-approval safety and efficacy that fit loosely under the rubric of pharmacovigilance. When approving medical products, FDA mostly relies on data that comes from pre-specified hypotheses that are tested through randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials. In contrast, the data that comes from pharmacovigilance is inherently less rigorous; indeed it constitutes a form of “data dredging” that FDA abhors. The heart of the problem is that:  

Real world data sets = uncontrolled variables + inconsistent data collection + questionable data accuracy.

When FDA and manufacturers collect adverse events reports, they know there will be underreporting of incidents, as well as limited ability to judge whether problems are drug-related. When FDA looks at the Medicare database, they know that information submitted as part of medical claims is unreliable and subject to systemic bias (e.g. medical coding is designed to support reimbursement, not public health analysis).

The Sentinel database should be superior because it incorporates medical records and patient registry information, along with claims data. Still it provides inferences, not proof.

Active surveillance—continuously monitoring millions of health records—is only worthwhile if these limitations are acknowledged. It can never provide certainty about whether drugs are safe and effective. It can tell you what is worth further examination…but can never tell you the cause of any problem that is identified.

As the FDA mantra goes: association is not causation. No matter how many health records and claims data are reviewed, this is still true.

Clinical trials have limitations, also. Trials don’t tell us how a drug will be used by prescribers. They can never provide complete information about patient outcomes for those individuals with several medical conditions (i.e. multi-morbidity) or who take many medications simultaneously (i.e. poly-pharmacy).

By inference (although not with certainty), pharmacovigilance and active surveillance could bring us closer to addressing potential problems that can’t be resolved by clinical trials. For example, many years ago, I worked on a drug to treat pre-term labor. As I recollect, there were two instances of respiratory problems in a trial of several hundred women. No one could say for sure whether this effect was caused by the drug or occurred at random. A study large enough to find out was infeasible.

Based on the potential respiratory problem, FDA rejected the drug despite the benefits it might have provided to women experiencing pre-term labor. If this same situation were to come up today…maybe FDA would decide differently, knowing it could collect patient outcomes information through pharmacovigilance, particularly active surveillance.

Ideally, FDA would know everything it needs to know about a drug at the time of its approval. Information derived from review of real world data sets can never be as good. But properly understood and carefully analyzed, the inferences derived from pharmacovigilance can add to our understanding about safety, efficacy, drug interactions and side effects.


Instead of just using that capacity to identify post-approval problems, FDA needs to incorporate pharmacovigilance into its thinking about when to approve drugs and with what conditions. FDA’s capacity to do pharmacovigilance and active surveillance should lead to a greater willingness by FDA to approve drugs, particularly those with otherwise solid benefit-risk equations, but burdened by questions that cannot be resolved prospectively or through clinical trials (even in phase 4).


Patients would benefit if FDA made this one of the Sentinel priorities.




This column first appeared on June 21, 2011. It is one of my favorites from last year.

Understanding FDA—Its Strength Is Its People

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Science is essential and rules and regulations must be followed…but ultimately it is the people of FDA who determine whether the agency functions well and acts in the best interests of the American people.  For that reason, a recurrent theme in FDA Matters is the importance of FDA employees. Their jobs are much more difficult than most of us imagine.

Consider the oft-expressed paradigm: FDA is committed to science-based decisionmaking. Yet, science doesn’t exist in a pure, understandable, easily accessible and unassailable form. Neither do laws and regulations. While law and science are fundamental to FDA decisions, only people can actually make the decisions.

During 2011, FDA Matters explicitly looked at the role of staff three times.

The first column asked: Will the Real FDA Please Stand Up?  It was in response to a widely circulated e-mail appealing for public support to prevent the firing of “courageous, honest FDA scientists who risked their careers to save lives by informing Congress about serious safety concerns involving dangerous, FDA-approved drugs and medical devices.”

Whistle-blowing is sometimes necessary. However, the image of a corrupt, politicized FDA cynically suppressing dissent and putting the American people at risk is inconsistent with the FDA that I have known and followed for over 30 years. Yet, I acknowledged that the claims made in the e-mail are persistent and come from many sources.

Exploring this in the column, I concluded that FDA is making progress in handling dissent and in encouraging managers to be more open-minded. While FDA makes mistakes, there is no conspiracy. The agency is fully committed to serving the American people. 

My second column, People, Not Science, Make Decisions, looked at why decisions take so long, especially product approvals. When asked about bottlenecks at FDA, I had to admit that people slow the process down. I pointed to three factors that cause delays:

  • FDA lacks sufficient resources.  FDA has been dramatically understaffed for decades, although better funding in recent years has improved the situation. Even still, new demands on FDA are increasing faster than staff can be added.
  • FDA’s culture promotes intensive scientific discussion.  Objective science-based decisionmaking is a goal, not a reality. People arrive at decisions with a bundle of perceptions and experiences that render their judgment subjective. Yet, they wouldn’t have much to contribute without those experiences.
  • Science has become more complex and results often unpredictable. Life sciences’ products are increasingly based on cutting edge discoveries. It takes more time, more thought and more knowledge on FDA’s part to make a good decision about them. 

Finally, I devoted a third column, FDA and Things that Might Go Bump in the Night, to exploring what happens when FDA staff has to decide the fate of breakthrough technology that could bring great benefit or great sorrow to humankind. In the current context, I had nanotechnology, genetically-engineered (GE) animals, and synthetic biology in mind.

Thirty years ago, FDA gave a cautious “yes” to the first biotechnology studies that eventually became important medical products to treat cancer, arthritis, MS and many other diseases. The world is a better place as a result.

In retrospect, the decision was right, but at the time, this wasn’t clear. Scary visions of mad scientists and technology run amok were powerful forces in the early days of biotechnology. In response, FDA staff took great care in setting up an appropriate regulatory environment.

Conclusion: Based on my experiences working with FDA and as expressed in these three columns, I believe that FDA staff–the people contributing to and making the decisions at FDA–are its strength. While they are human and make mistakes, FDA’s employees are smart, conscientious and committed.   


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.


Beyond Plan B: Scientific Integrity and a Possible Third Class of Drugs

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Patient access to the emergency hormonal contraceptive “Plan B One-Step” has been one of the most combustible issues ever faced by FDA. It received more attention last week when FDA approved expanded access for adolescents under 17 and HHS Secretary Katherine Sebelius promptly overruled the agency because she found inadequate scientific support for the decision. (For my readers outside the US, here is a New York Times article that provides background).

FDA Matters wonders: has FDA’s scientific decisionmaking authority been thwarted in some lasting way, as some have claimed? Is it time to reconsider proposals for a new category of drugs for which pharmacists are the gatekeeper?

Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and other laws, the Secretary of HHS has the legal authority to make virtually all decisions within the Department’s jurisdiction. Most of this authority has been delegated to subordinates, including the FDA Commissioner, although the delegation can be withdrawn at any time. No one remembers an instance in which the Secretary explicitly overruled FDA.

Was there a lapse in communications between FDA and HHS? Normally, the Secretary and the Commissioner (or their staffs) discuss controversial decisions before they are made and a compromise reached. Had this occurred, FDA would have announced that compromise as the agency’s decision and taken the heat for ignoring its advisors and staff.  

The alternative explanation, which I hope is true, is that there was an understanding that FDA’s voice should be heard and its integrity preserved, while the Secretary would take the heat for the decision by overruling the agency. This would be consistent with an approach that Commissioner Hamburg has championed: that government should be more honest and transparent about disagreements, as long as everyone understands that someone with decisionmaking authority will actually make a decision.

Either way, it is important to recognize that Plan B has proven to be a “one-of-a-kind” controversy, presenting uniquely difficult issues that aren’t present in 99.9% of FDA’s decisions. I see no reason for commentators to be writing, as one did:  “FDA’s medical and scientific integrity has been forever blighted by these frankly political decisions.”

Secretary Sebelius is not going to make a habit of questioning the scientific support for FDA’s decisions. Nor have we any reason to fear the death of FDA’s integrity or to conclude that it can no longer be a scientifically-driven regulatory agency.

Leaving aside the merits of either FDA or HHS’s position, the Plan B controversy provides an impetus to consider whether there should be a third class of drugs that are neither prescription-only (Rx) nor over-the-counter (OTC). The day after the HHS decision, John Jenkins, director of FDA’s Office of New Drugs, suggested just such a connection between Plan B and a potential third class of drugs known as “behind the counter” drugs (BTC).   

BTC, which has been discussed for decades, relies upon pharmacists to dispense these drugs without a prescription and independent of a physician-office visit. Pharmacists are the most widely distributed of all health care professionals, as well as the most readily accessible. BTC would empower them to provide additional education, monitor appropriate use and discourage misuse for a wide variety of drugs. 

Currently, OTC products containing pseudoephedrine are handled as BTC because of their potential use in making methamphetamine. According to Dr. Jenkins, statins are potential candidates for BTC status, as might other drug classes where petitions for Rx to OTC switches have been denied but there is still potential for safe patient self-treatment without a physician office visit.

In sum, accessibility to the emergency contraceptive Plan B continues to be a disruptive and controversial issue for FDA. However, this is a unique issue and there should be no continuing damage to FDA because the agency was overruled by HHS. A third class of drugs could evolve out of this that might be beneficial to patients across a number of diseases and drug classes, including hormonal contraceptives.



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