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Bold Discussions: Possible New Approval Pathways for Breakthrough Drugs

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 Others accelerated approval drugs are still being studied and a few have been withdrawn.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).


One Response to “Bold Discussions: Possible New Approval Pathways for Breakthrough Drugs”

  1. Michael Losow says:

    While safety is always a priority, for those with unmet treatments for serious chronic or actually life-threatening diseases, many are willing to take a higher risk. This is not the development of a slightly different ibuprofin but truely innovative products that alter the human condition. It is about time a real proposal was put on the table. BIO and Senator Hagan deserve plaudits for stepping up to the challenge – and the FDA deserves credit for an open-minded response to new ideas. I agree with you Steve, it is a great conversation starter – worth having.

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