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Public Incentives and Drug Development: More is Usually Better


A former colleague often declared: life sciences companies have no alternative to re-investing in developing more drugs, biologics and medical devices. I always thought this naïve because of its implication that life sciences research is self-perpetuating and does not need encouragement.  


Currently, Congress seems primed (through oversight and possibly legislation) to consider the role of companies and government in medical product development. This week, FDA Matters explores the nature and need for incentives to conduct life sciences’ research; last week’s column looked at issues surrounding the pricing of medical products.


The government’s goal in incentivizing certain life sciences research is to stimulate activity that meets or resolves societal needs (e.g. drugs and devices for cancers, therapies for rare diseases, treatments for tropical diseases). Idealistically, the incentives encourage vital, new activity without providing subsidies for research that would have occurred without incentives.  


The reality is different. If the rules (statutory or administrative) for receiving incentives are drawn too tightly, then many research projects will not be undertaken, losing the benefits that society would otherwise receive.


To explain this better, I have identified three broad categories of public incentives for research:


Ordinary research incentives. These are the incentives available for all corporate-supported research. These include the research and development (R&D) tax credit, access to government technology transfer programs and patent protection. For most industries, and even most life sciences research, these seem sufficient to stimulate a high-level of research investment.


Upgraded incentives.  Ordinary research incentives are sometimes not enough to stimulate life science research that will benefit society. As a result, Congress has created a number of upgraded incentives for medical product development.


For example, Congress has provided partial patent term restoration for drug companies experiencing particularly long delays in receiving marketing approval. This has led to increased research investment (as well as boosting the generic drug market as part of the same legislation).  


Also, Congress created the Orphan Drug Act to provide incentives for research on drugs for rare diseases/small populations. This law incorporated a number of incentives, notably up to seven years market exclusivity for any new orphan indication on a drug.  


FDA also provides a number of upgraded incentives for particular types of research through its expanded access and accelerated approvals programs. User fee waivers granted to first products from new companies also stimulates research investment.  


Extraordinary incentives.  Sometimes even upgraded incentives aren’t enough to stimulate vitally important research. In those cases, Congress may consider incentives designed to dramatically alter the normal risk/reward/certainty calculation that usually precedes research investments.


Thus far, I can think of only one instance of extraordinary incentives. In 2007, Congress enacted a program that awards a “priority review voucher” for successful development of a new treatment for a neglected tropical disease. Owning a voucher entitles a company to ask for a priority review (6 months) by FDA of an unrelated product that would otherwise be granted a normal review (10 months). Currently, Congress is looking at legislation (S. 606) that would extend this voucher program to developers of products to treat pediatric rare diseases.


It is up to Congress to decide whether to encourage particular life sciences research beyond the ordinary incentives. When upgraded or extraordinary incentives are under consideration, the goal is stimulating substantial additional research….and the development of many new drugs that are particularly beneficial to society.   


In all such situations, there is a risk that incentives will be provided to research that would have occurred anyway. My own experiences suggest that overly tight restrictions on program eligibility result in understimulatoin of needed research. When creating incentives and, also, assessing their impact later, Congress needs to take the broad view of the societal good that can be achieved by upgraded and extraordinary incentives for research.




Drug Product Pricing 101                 March 26th, 2011

A thousand good deeds of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have been washed away by the decision of K-V Pharmaceuticals to charge $1500 per dose for Makena, a drug that reduces the risk of pre-term delivery in pregnant women. There is an easy comparator: the same therapy has been compounded in pharmacies for years at a cost of $10 to $30 per dose. Congressional and public reaction has, quite understandably, been one of outrage.

No one knows the right price for this drug, but there are ways to find out. In conversations this week, FDA Matters discovered that many knowledgeable people don’t know that there are tools to rationally evaluate and guide product pricing decisions. Read the rest of this entry

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