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Safety and Efficacy Standards: Innovative Approaches to Radical Ideas

FDA is in the midst of its quinquennial* (five year) review from Congress as part of the user fee reauthorization cycle. Lots of proposals are on the table and FDA Matters agrees with some and disagrees with others. So far though, there doesn’t seem to be anything that would pull FDA apart or create an agency that cannot act with integrity. 

In contrast, two key opinion leaders are talking about potentially radical changes in FDA’s safety and efficacy standards. While neither has seen their specific proposals become part of the Hill debate, there are redeeming qualities to what both of them are suggesting.

User Fee Reauthorization Legislation.  I have been expecting the worst from Congress. Five-years of FDA issues have accumulated and there are tight deadlines for action by summer. The Senate bill just passed subcommittee in late April and the House bill will be marked up starting May 8. So far, House and Senate negotiations have stayed within the bounds of acceptable disagreement and we might see final legislation on schedule.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the reauthorization process wouldn’t yet turn into a mess or that the early start won’t be frittered away in extended debate. However, at least so far, Congress is doing a good job with a tough task.   

Radical thinking, far from Capitol Hill.  In February, former FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach wrote that maybe FDA was being too tough on efficacy in the face of proven safety. Specifically, he wrote:

Instead, after proof of concept and safety testing, the product could be approved for marketing with every eligible patient entered in a registry so the company and the FDA can establish efficacy through post-market studies.

Then, in late April, Dr. Eric Topol** of Scripps Institute and a leader on cardiovascular safety issues, suggested that FDA may be too tough on safety in the face of proven efficacy. Specifically, he said:

The whole concept of having “overwhelming efficacy” of a device, or a drug, or a diagnostic test hasn’t been embraced enough. If we have that, learning about safety could be done on a conditional approval basis…..under a probationary status [with] every single individual…monitored electronically to watch the device, the drug, the test in question.

If the goal was to shock as well as provoke discussion, they both succeeded with me. Each offers a proposal that violates at least two important norms: “all drugs have risks” and “the first obligation of physicians is ‘to do no harm.’”

FDA Matters and, I believe, FDA and most stakeholders believe that substantial evidence of both safety and efficacy are needed before drugs are made available in the marketplace. I imagine the American public would agree.  

Radical Thinking Re-channeled.  I respect both individuals for their intellect and achievements, so I tried to find more conventional ways of looking at their ideas, ways that wouldn’t place tens of thousands of patients at risk. I think I succeeded.

Dr. von Eschenbach’s central point is that we don’t squeeze enough therapeutic potential out of drugs that have been well-tested and have excellent safety profiles. In that case, NIH Director Francis Collins is thinking along the same lines.  

On May 3, he announced  a new initiative, called Discovering New Therapeutic Uses for Existing Molecules. The program “will direct researchers’ attention to [and provide availability for testing] a part of the drug development pipeline traditionally difficult to access: compounds that have cleared several key steps in the development process, including safety testing in humans.”

Dr. Topol’s central point is that seriously-ill patients should have access to therapies that demonstrate impressive efficacy, without delay by inflexible rules about proof of safety. In that case, the Senate is thinking along the same lines.  

As described in a recent column, Proposals to Speed Drug Approvals: Not Created Equal, the Advancing Breakthrough Therapies for Patients Act or the Breakthrough Act (S. 2236) would:

“provide more flexibility when a drug or treatment shows dramatic responses early in development, while still ensuring drug safety and efficacy. For patients, this proposal would allow FDA the ability to move towards more innovative clinical trials, such as minimizing the number of patients enrolled in trials and shortening the duration of trials, when scientifically appropriate.”

S. 2236 is part of the user fee reauthorization bill that passed in the Senate Subcommittee.

Radical ideas met with innovative but conventional solutions. Well done all around.


* Yes, there really is a word that means “once every five years.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/quinquennial

** Dr. Eric Topol was recently named the “most influential physician executive in the U.S.” by Modern Healthcare magazine.

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