FDA approved 35 innovative drugs in fiscal 2011, including treatments for hepatitis C, prostate cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and lupus. This number of approvals is among the highest in the past 10 years, and it reflects the agency’s efforts to hasten patients’ access to new drugs. In the past two years, the agency’s lower levels of approvals—21 drugs in 2010 and 25 in 2009—caused concern throughout the industry and in Congress. We may feel grateful to FDA, but we also should ask how the agency achieved this high number of approvals.
One technique was accelerated approval for drugs to treat serious diseases. This authority allows the agency to approve a drug based on clinical data showing that it is reasonably likely to have a clinical benefit, even if data do not demonstrate that the drug has this benefit. Almost half of the newly approved drugs received Priority Review because they had the potential to offer major advances in treatment, or because no adequate therapy existed. FDA sets a six-month target date to review such drugs.
Although these changes in procedure are well-intentioned, we may legitimately ask how they will affect patients’ safety. After all, GSK’s diabetes drug Avandia received fast-track approval, but an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine later linked the drug to an increased risk of heart attacks. The Wall Street Journal notes that a Senate Finance Committee report last year accused the company of hiding data showing Avandia’s cardiovascular risks, and GSK has just agreed to pay the US government $3 billion to settle this and other claims.
Creating a short timeline for drug approval could hurt the agency’s reviews of clinical data. FDA approved Pfizer’s smoking-cessation drug Chantix after an accelerated priority-review process. The agency concluded that the drug did not increase the risk of psychiatric problems such as depression. But researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that Chantix was eight times more likely to result in suicidal behavior or depression than nicotine-replacement products. One reason for the discrepancy could be that, unlike FDA, the researchers performed disproportionality analysis on the data—a technique that is increasingly being used to find links in side-effect data that normally escape detection in clinical trials.
FDA’s staff includes well-vetted and experienced scientists, but they need sufficient time to work thoughtfully and thoroughly. Even though the agency’s initiative has increased the number of new-drug approvals, it may also be increasing the risk that a company can hide negative data from regulators, or that the agency’s own analyses will not be as complete as they could be. In light of the problems with Avandia and the conflicting studies about Chantix, I think FDA should review its efforts to promote innovation to be sure that the agency maintains high standards for drug safety.