Author Archive

Congress Clarifies Drug Compounding, Tracking Policies

Public outrage over deaths from contaminated injectibles produced by large compounding pharmacies, along with rising concerns about counterfeit and unauthorized drugs entering the U.S. market, managed to lift the stalemate on Capitol Hill long enough to generate agreement on reform legislation. After months of public hearings and negotiations, Democrat and Republican leaders of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee unveiled a compromise bill last week. No one gets all they wanted from the Drug Quality and Security Act, but it provides more clarity and predictability to drug oversight programs and moves forward initiatives designed to enhance the safety and quality of medicines in the U.S.

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Pharma Revenues, Health Expenditures Set to Increase

Healthcare spending will rise modestly in the US over the next decade, as economic growth picks up, health reform provides expanded coverage, and the population continues to age, according to an annual analysis from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). These trends similarly will boost expenditures for prescription drugs, but not as quickly as in previous decades.

Outlays for healthcare in the US have grown much more slowly over the past three years, largely due to an economic decline that deterred individuals from seeing doctors and to increased cost-sharing requirements for the privately insured. Minimal growth is continuing this year, but expenditures will begin to rise in 2014, boosting the average growth rate for national health spending to 5.8% through 2022, according to the National Health Expenditure Projections from the CMS Office of the Actuary and published by Health Affairs. Much of the spending will come from public agencies, as healthcare financed by federal, state, and local governments reaches $2.4 trillion in 2022, nearly half of all national health outlays.

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FDA, CDER Weigh Organizational Changes

FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg has formed a top-level working group to propose strategies for enhancing agency functions and processes, starting with the relationship between FDA Centers and its field force. The Program Alignment Group (PAG), announced Sept. 6, 2013, will seek to clarify the roles and responsibilities of product centers and the Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) to more effectively align practices, processes, and resources. The panel includes the deputy commissioners for food and veterinary medicine, for global regulatory operations and policy, plus the heads of ORA and all Centers to better coordinate inspection and oversight policies and programs throughout the agency.

Key issues are whether more specialization in FDA inspection and compliance functions would be beneficial, and how risk-based models and performance metrics may improve oversight and compliance outcomes. The agency also is looking for ways to achieve more efficient laboratory operations and to coordinate training for ORA and Center staffs.

Hamburg further explained at a conference on biomedical research the next week that her reorganization effort reflects the impact of a more globalized world for medical product development and production. Historically, ORA has fielded generalists able to inspect and evaluate a broad range of regulated products, but the modern era may require a more specialized regulatory staff. And while these issues have been addressed periodically by FDA Centers, including the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), the PAG will seek a more cohesive approach that considers the differences and needs of all regulated product areas.

CDER director Janet Woodcock, who is on the PAG, sees its mission paralleling her initiative to modernize how CDER regulates pharmaceutical quality. Woodcock seeks to establish an Office of Pharmaceutical Quality (OPQ), which similarly would coordinate drug compliance activities with ORA and take steps to clarify roles and responsibilities of CDER offices and to establish metrics and accountability.

At the PDA/FDA joint regulatory conference Sept. 16, Woodcock emphasized that CDER has to change the way it regulates industry to ensure an agile manufacturing sector that can reliably produce quality medicines, with less extensive agency oversight. One innovation would be to reorganize the review of the manufacturing portion of drug applications according to dosage forms and their predictable “failure modes.” Most product recalls, she noted, involve formulation design problems, such as particulates in parenterals and dissolution failures with solid oral products. This approach will involve setting clinically relative specifications and identifying what changes raise risks for drug safety and efficacy – and what do not.

The PAG is slated to give Hamburg an initial plan for operational changes by early December. And CDER hopes that OPQ will become a reality early next year, said Keith Webber, acting director of CDER’s Office of Pharmaceutical Science, at the PDA conference. The reorganization process is slow, as CDER’s OPQ proposal requires approval by HHS officials and has to be vetted by the Office of Management and Budget; some members of Congress also may want to review how the changes could affect drug shortages and patient access to medicines.

True Pharma Innovation Lies in Quality, not Quantity, of Approvals, say FDA Analysts

We’re already embroiled in the annual speculation game about whether FDA approvals this year will keep pace with last year’s near-record of 39 new molecular entities (NMEs) brought to market. The tally is closely watched as a sign of the state of biopharmaceutical innovation and the health of the pharmaceutical industry and biomedical research enterprise.

But this focus on the quantity of new drug approvals is misleading, according to FDA analysts, because it fails to distinguish between truly innovative new therapies and those that are similar to medicines already on the market, explains Mike Lanthier, operations research analyst on the economics staff of FDA’s Office of Planning. While all NMEs offer some therapeutic advantage, those that are “first-in-class” and “advance-in-class” medicines represent important advances, he explains. Alternatively, “addition-to-class” therapies may provide useful options for patients, but not substantial advances over existing products. And it is this last category that has experienced the much-hyped decline in approvals in recent years, while more vital therapies are holding steady or increasing in number, Lanthier points out in an FDA Voice blog posted Aug. 6, 2013. This “more nuanced and informative” assessment of NME categories thus refutes fears of an “innovation gap” that threatens drug discovery.

One factor may be a rise in small biopharma companies developing more innovative drugs, while large drug companies have focused on refining blockbuster drugs for large patient populations. NMEs from small companies have increased notably since 1996 and now account for 50% of approvals, compared to roughly one-third in the past, Lanthier and colleagues explain more fully in an article in the August 2013 issue of Health Affairs.

FDA initiatives also may support these developments. Most innovative NMEs have benefited from priority review treatment, and the new breakthrough drug program and added incentives for new antibiotics and pediatric treatments promise to expedite the development of innovative therapies. It’s also possible, the authors say, that the increased influence of large pharmacy benefit management firms reduces reimbursement for pricey drugs that lack proven benefits.

Another measure of biopharma innovation may be the number of new drug applications filed with FDA, although the quantity-over-quality measure also may apply here.

Court Ruling Threatens Drug Shortage Remedy

The Food and Drug Administration may no longer be able to alleviate shortages in vital drugs by permitting the import of unapproved medicines following a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The ruling of July 23, 2013 also raises broader questions about when and how FDA can “exercise regulatory discretion” in deciding certain policy and enforcement issues.

According to a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel, FDA’s action to permit import of thiopental from an unregistered foreign establishment was “not in accordance with law,” even though the aim was to address the shortage of a needed medicine. The ruling in Cook et al v. FDA (case No. 12-5176), which upholds a previous decision by a federal district court, involves a shortage of thiopental sodium, which created serious problems for state law enforcement officials seeking to use it in delivering lethal injections. A group of death row inmates from three states filed suit, claiming that FDA violated the law by improperly allowing shipments of a misbranded and unapproved new drug to enter the United States..

The Appeals Court specifically rejected FDA’s argument that it can legally address drug shortages by permitting the import of drugs approved by other regulatory authorities. Among its various tools for combating serious short supply situations, FDA also cites authority to allow distribution of a product suffering from quality problems, but found by the agency to “not cause undue risk to patients.” Other FDA relief strategies are to work with sponsors to resolve manufacturing issues, expedite inspections and reviews of short supply products, identify additional manufacturers willing to initiate or increase production, extend product expiration dates, and help firms qualify new sources of raw materials.

FDA has permitted unapproved imports 17 times in recent years, according to its announcement in May on authorizing the import of injectable total parenteral nutrition (TPN) solutions. These products are desperately needed by hospitals to treat premature infants who are unable to eat or drink, as well as cancer patients undergoing gastrointestinal surgeries. In this case, FDA authorized Fresenius Kabi USA to import TPN products from its Norway plant. The agency took this step after American Regent/Luitpold shut down operations at the end of 2012 to address quality issues that left particulate matter in injectable products. In this and other cases, FDA says that it evaluates the overseas drug to ensure that it is of adequate quality and informs doctors of the status of the imported product.

The July Appeals court ruling is regarded as a victory for death penalty opponents, who had pressured other manufacturers to discontinue production of thiopental and other “death drugs.” Yet state officials had urged FDA to appeal last year’s district court ruling in order to obtain needed supplies to carry out executions according to law. In that earlier lower decision, the judge accused FDA of hypocrisy, pointing out that the agency prevents consumers from purchasing medicines over the Internet because it deems the products misbranded and unapproved. The Appeals Court agreed, noting that FDA can address specific shortages through other strategies, such as designating an unapproved foreign drug as investigational to allow its importation.

This legal challenge to FDA use of enforcement discretion also could provide support for K-V Pharmaceuticals, which is challenging FDA’s failure to block competitors from producing the pre-term birth drug Makena (hydroxyprogesterone caproate injection). In this case, explains attorney Kurt Karst of Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, the D.C. District Court has sided with FDA, stating that the agency has the right to refuse to take action to stop pharmacy compounding of the drug. Kurt speculates in the FDA Law Blog that the recent Cook case will have a “huge effect” on how it deals with drug shortages [see July 23, 2013].

Patent Settlements Become More Risky

Pharmaceutical companies can anticipate more costly, drawn-out patent litigation in the wake of the June 17 US Supreme Court decision, which creates great uncertainty about the grounds for negotiating settlements in patent cases. In ruling that “pay-for-delay” arrangements could violate the antitrust laws, and that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the right to challenge these deals, the majority undermined years of patent case law and sent the issue back to the lower courts to decide.

The decision was not a complete victory for the FTC, in that it stopped short of declaring reverse payment agreements as per se illegal. Instead, the Justices instructed the lower courts to apply a “rule of reason” to these cases, and not the “quick look” approach employed by the Circuit Court case under review.

The ruling in FTC v. Actavis supports the long-held contention of FTC officials and consumer activists that brand-generic patent settlements maintain market exclusivity for brand name drugs, reducing competition and raising costs for consumers and health care systems. Both innovator and generic firms have insisted that these settlements actually permit generic products to come to market earlier than under costly, drawn-out court battles over patent rights. That argument was supported in an April 2012 ruling from the US Court of Appeals, which found that an arrangement that allows generic competition earlier than patent expiration did not violate antitrust laws. The dissenting opinion from Chief Justice John Roberts, which was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, echoes the earlier Court ruling and also raises concerns about linking antitrust law and patent issues and weakening patent protections for innovators.

However, a 5-3 majority led by Justice Stephen Breyer held that the FTC and other government and private parties have the right to pursue reverse payment arrangements as violations of antitrust laws. Breyer, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, expressed concerns that reverse payment settlements have an adverse effect on competition. At the same time, though, the majority failed to provide guidance on how to structure patent settlements so that they do comply with antitrust policy.

The ruling is expected to encourage the private plaintiffs’ bar to bring new lawsuits challenging brand-generic patent settlements of all kinds, setting the stage for years of uncertainty in challenging and defending patents on all sides. “It’s going to be a nightmare,” predicted Arent Fox attorney Wayne Matelski, as District Courts struggle to decide what “rule of reason” means in these complex cases.

While companies may be more reluctant to settle future lawsuits, they may face legal challenges to earlier settlements, and new arguments against cases currently before the courts. More plaintiffs may enter the fray, as seen in recent actions by chain drugstores. These cases will require decisions from judges on whether a settlement is illegal primarily due to the size of a reverse payment, or to other services and arrangements with a generic firm. The courts also will have to weigh the strength of a patent and the merits of a patent suit and what extraneous financial factors might lead a generic competitor to seek a settlement.

Although the FTC claimed the ruling a “significant victory,” many legal authorities questioned whether the decision would promote competition and lower drug costs. It remains to be seen if generic drug makers will become more aggressive in challenging patents in order to speed copycat products to market, or if brand firms become more determined to protect intellectual property rights, despite the high cost of litigation.

Congress gets off the hook, for now, as it’s likely to drop efforts to enact FTC-backed legislation to limit reverse-payment settlements. Yet, the issue could end up before the Supreme Court again if lower courts continue to produce divergent rulings on these cases, as they have done over the last decade.

Praise and Perils for Biotechnology Patent Policy

The Supreme Court decision blocking patents on naturally-occurring genes has generated predictions of doom for biotech innovation, along with expectations of more healthy competition in discovering new treatments and diagnostics. Although some commentators regarded the decision, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, as a “major reversal” in longstanding patent policy, many leaders of the biopharmaceutical research community described the ruling as likely to spur innovation and the development of therapies and companion diagnostics necessary for advances in personalized medicine.

All sides had legitimate reasons to claim victory:  patient and research groups anticipated easier access to more effective and efficient tests and therapies; biotech companies were relieved that the Justices did not invalidate ancillary patents surrounding genetic discoveries. A number of testing firms announced plans to develop newer, better, less costly tests using the BRCA genetic mutations. Myriad Genetics said its test for breast cancer would remain a leading option for patients and that it would continue its R&D program based on hundreds of other patents.

The ultimate outcome remains to be seen.  The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) is expected to revise practices for granting patents for isolated DNA, although the court specifically permits protection for companies that modify genetic material or create new products based on human genes. But in upholding patents on complementary, or cDNA, the Court left the door open to further debate and legal battles over just what genetic manipulations qualify for patent protection.

Yet, there is reason to hope that the unanimous, non-partisan Court ruling will help clarify patent policy related to biotechnology, a subject that remains tangled up in multiple legal cases and legislative proposals.  And the non-political nature of this fairly technical ruling should provide grounds for optimism that the system can address some issues on the legal merits of the case.

Manufacturers Seek Strategies for Life-Cycle Approach to Process Validation

The US Food and Drug Administration and industry have been working to incorporate process validation as an integral component of drug development and production, and to avoid divergent policies in the US and Europe. A good deal of progress has been made in this area, but manufacturers continue to feel uncertain about the details in revising existing systems and updating long-held practices to fit new approaches, as seen in the discussion at the PDA/FDA Process Validation Workshop in Bethesda, Md., May 20-21. Participants assessed FDA’s Process Validation guidance, which was published in January 2011, and the corresponding PDA technical report on “A Lifecycle Approach to Process Validation” (TR 60) issued in January 2013 [available at].

The aim is to help manufacturers who are wrestling with and working to implement the FDA guidance, explained Harold Baseman, chief operating office of ValSource and co-chair of the PDA process validation interest group. The workshop program followed FDA’s three stages for process validation, starting with process design and moving through process qualification to achieve continued process validation to provide ongoing assurance that a production process remains in a state of control.

Workshop attendees discussed the importance of gaining extensive knowledge about a process early in design and development stages to ensure that the system is well controlled. Patrick Swan, deputy director of the Division of Monoclonal Antibodies, Office of Biotechnology Products (OBP) in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), highlighted the value of tapping prior knowledge to support process validation activities, noting that this may expedite product development for lifesaving breakthrough therapies.
Process qualification involves identifying and interpreting information from process design functions to establish testing and acceptance criteria. Methods for equipment and facility assessment are important, as are sound process qualification sampling plans.

The lifecycle approach also involves linking process validation activities to a manufacturer’s Quality Risk Management system. While manufacturers and regulators are looking to shift away from assessing a set number of batches, questions remain about how much data is needed to show that something is or is not in control, Baseman explained.

Similar efforts by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to update policies on these issues were discussed, with an emphasis on the importance of achieving similar approaches to validation requirements. Concerns were raised that EMA doesn’t consider process development part of process validation, that different terms are emerging, and that divergent regulatory approaches may cause confusion. Manufacturers filing applications in some 150 countries emphasized the importance of common formats and systems.

OBP deputy director Jeffrey Baker explained that FDA and EMA officials discuss these and other issues at “cluster meetings,” held to address topics such as biosimilar evaluation, good manufacturing practices and differences in review policies. Regulatory authorities at these sessions don’t consider specific companies or applications, Baker noted, but address general policy approaches, with an eye to gaining alignment on regulatory guidance.

Baker and others suggested that questions about data collection and regulatory requirements can be addressed by focusing on the science, which is key to appropriate terminology, data formats and determining what information is needed to assure product quality.

Yet, legacy products raise challenges, as manufacturers have to determine what would be involved in updating process validation data to support manufacturing changes or address safety issues.

One benefit of revised process validation policy that reduces the volume of unnecessary testing is to streamline the development and approval of important, life-saving therapies. Future FDA guidance on its regulatory approach to “breakthrough” therapies should explain further how the agency will address manufacturing and quality assurance issues for such products, Baker noted. But he pointed out that companies request the breakthrough designation and thus should be able to explain how they will supply a quality product efficiently and quickly for sick patients.

Will Congress Provide Sequester “Flexibility” for User Fees?

Just about every federal program and affected interest group is pressing for relief from the 8% across-the-board cuts in funding imposed by the budget sequestration mandate. Recent fast action on Capitol Hill to curb personnel furloughs of air traffic controllers by the Federal Aviation Administration, though, has spurred lobbying for similar treatment across many fronts. Read more »

Safety Trumps Access to Pain Meds for FDA

FDA has come down on the side of reducing abuse of opioid medications, over encouraging wider availability of low-cost painkiller meds. The agency decided to block generic versions of the original OxyContin formulation, which is fairly easy to manipulate by illegal users. The aim is to help halt the epidemic of prescription drug abuse raging across the country. FDA’s decision leaves the market open to Purdue Pharma’s newer version of the drug, which the agency determined has features that make it more difficult to abuse via injection or snorting. Read more »

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