FDA Matters Blog
Register to get regular updates from FDA Matters FDA Matters Home

Off-Label Uses Need to Become On-Label Indications

A friend asked: what advice would you give a pharmaceutical company in the late stages of developing a new product that will be widely used off-label? The company’s concern was that FDA might hold the first use to a very high, perhaps unrealistic standard to protect patients that might receive the drug off-label after approval.

In thinking about how FDA views this type of situation, I realized there were two very concrete things the company could do. Here is the FDA Matters analysis:

FDA controls the availability of prescription medicines and devices in the US. It does not control the practice of medicine. Once a drug/device is approved for marketing, any doctor can prescribe it for an indication that is not on the label of the drug or device. For example, narcolepsy drugs are often prescribed to enhance concentration and wakefulness in individuals without the disease.

The agency is remarkably positive about deferring to the professional judgment of physicians. Even still, FDA’s mission is to protect the public health. It would like to see every off-label indication get the scrutiny necessary to assure it is safe and efficacious.

One of FDA’s great fears is that off-label prescribing will become dominant in clinical medicine (as I am told it has in certain areas of oncology). FDA is concerned that companies will get approval for a first use, then (directly or subtly) encourage doctors to prescribe off-label. If this strategy is profitable, FDA worries that fewer and fewer companies will commit the time and money to get approval for additional indications. If a company can’t promote off-label, then it is more likely to invest in clinical trials to gain approval of the additional indications.

There are two components to FDA’s concerns.

First, does the company intend to do the studies to support additional indications for their product? FDA has been promised much by companies and often receives very little back.

Companies can address this FDA concern by having a clinical trial plan in place for any additional indication(s). Where FDA will permit subsequent trials to be initiated prior to first approval, doing so will further strengthen the company’s case. A clear commitment to seek FDA approval for additional indications will reassure the agency that the first indication should be judged on its own merits; not elevated to a higher level by the agency’s angst about subsequent off-label use.

Second, will the company try to build the market by promoting the off-label uses? By all appearances, companies often decide that off-label use will be so profitable and supplemental indications so expensive that it does not “pay” to do clinical trials for additional indications. And since companies have paid billions of dollars in fines over the last few years for off-label promotion, FDA assumes that such marketing will occur.

The path is open for a company to announce that they will be implementing the strictest possible controls on marketing and sales practices to prevent promotion of off-label uses of their product(s). In the case of a first approval of a product with multiple uses, such an announcement could assuage FDA’s fears that the first use is the only indication that the company will seek.

There is a larger issue here, apart from the strategic and psychological aspects of getting a first approval for a specific product.

Getting more indications on-label should be a public health priority. FDA and industry need to discuss how to accomplish this.


Two prior columns touched on off-label use and off-label promotion:

Internet Communications: FDA Needs to Divide the Issues to Conquer the Problem
December 2nd, 2009

Creating an Internet communications policy for regulated medical product companies is so daunting that FDA has largely ignored the responsibility. November’s FDA hearing on social media was an important step, but offered no sign that new policy will be announced anytime soon.

FDA needs a different approach. This is not a matter of a large, complicated problem with many facets. Rather, it is a number of smaller problems that can be addressed separately. Read the rest of this entry »

Off-Label Promotion and Whistleblowing
September 9th, 2009

Whistleblowing and off-label promotion of drugs and devices have become hot topics because of the September 2 Pfizer settlement with the federal government. While none of my views are specific to Pfizer, the company’s settlement provides an opportunity to comment on off-label promotion….and to encourage bio-pharma and medical device companies to engage in deeper soul-searching. Read the rest of this entry »

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

© 2009-2012 by HPS Group. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to those wishing to quote or reprint from this site, providing it is properly attributed to FDA Matters: The Grossman FDA Report™.