Category Archives: In the News

Concerns That Public Hearings on Breast Implants Will Favor Implant Manufacturers

Kris Pickel, CBS News: October 4, 2018.


PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — The Food and Drug Administration has agreed to hold a public hearing on Breast Implant Illness. It’s a victory for women who petitioned the FDA but CBS 5 is investigating concerns the hearings will be stacked to favor implant manufacturers.

Breast Implant Illness (BII) is not recognized as a medical condition.

It is a term used by thousands of women to describe a wide range of unexplained symptoms experienced by women who believe their implants made them sick.

Symptoms of Implant Illness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CBS 5 has been investigating BII for almost two years and has seen the number of women coming forward increase by the tens of thousands.

When our first investigation aired, the Facebook group Breast Implant Illness and Healing with Nicole, had 17,000 members. It now has more than 51,000.

News reports and social media are connecting women who believe they suffer from BII.

They are finding strength in numbers.

More than 21,000 women signed an online petition demanding the FDA hold public hearings.

The FDA agreed to meet privately with a small group of women who believe they suffer from BII.

Among the women who traveled to the District of Columbia for the September meeting at FDA headquarters were breast cancer survivors, women who believe implants made them sick, experts on breast implants and women who recently played a role in having the birth-control device Essure pulled off the market.

Women in the group say the FDA set the terms for the meeting: No cameras, no recording, no reporters allowed.

Following the September meeting, the FDA released a statementdisputing a study linking implants to illnesses.

Buried at the end of the statement, the FDA announced they would hold a public hearing on breast implants next year.

Nicole Daruda founded the website HealingBreastImplantIllness.com and the closed Facebook group Breast Implant Illness and Healing with Nicole.

Daruda say some of the issues they want to address include taking textured implants the FDA has said might be linked to the potential for a rare cancer off the market, comprehensive studies and requiring surgeons to give women a checklist of potential risks at least a week before surgery.

In the FDA’s public hearing, an advisory panel will hear from industry representatives, experts, women who believe their implants made them sick and members from the public.

Following the public hearing, that advisory panel will vote on recommendations to make to the FDA. The panel does not have the power to make changes. It will only make recommendations.

Dr. Diana Zuckerman on CBS News

Dr. Diana Zuckerman is president of the National Center for Health Research in D.C. and is responsible for a dozen Congressional investigations on a various health issues.

Zuckerman says in the past, the FDA has stacked the panels with plastic surgeons who have a financial interest in protecting breast implants. 

“Having surgeons whose entire livelihood, or almost entire livelihood, is based on breast surgery, with breast implants, can’t possibly be objective,” Zuckerman said.

She says she has witnessed multiple times where plastic surgeons advocate for implants and dominate the hearings.

“I’ve seen situations where a statistician, for example, says, ‘Look at how unsafe these products are,’ and the plastic surgeon says, ‘No. No. No. We put these in all the time and they are very safe.'”

We contacted the FDA a several times during this investigation and asked if they would be looking at the panel to eliminate possible conflicts of interest.

They responded with a link to their application for panel members, which includes a section that addresses conflict of interest.

Conflict of Interest

The FDA website lists the core group of eight voting members on the advisory panel.

CBS 5 was able to confirm at least two of the doctors perform breast implant surgeries and a regulatory expert who previously worked for Johnson & Johnson, which owns implant manufacturer Mentor.

Zuckerman says in the interest of ensuring an unbiased panel, people should contact their elected officials in Washington and ask them to  pressure the FDA to make sure no one with financial ties to the implant industry sits on the advisory panel.

One Woman’s Story

Robin Towt shares her story

Cancer survivor Robyn Towt was in the group of women who met with the FDA.

When diagnosed with breast cancer, Towt immediately opted for a double mastectomy.

She says her health issues, including anxiety and insomnia, started the day her implants were put in.

Having survived cancer before, radiation was not an option.

Towt chose not to do chemotherapy, leaving no explanation as to why she was getting sicker.

“I have been never been that miserable in my entire life and in that dark a place,” she said. “I feel horrible because my family suffered. My husband suffered. I was not a happy person. I was not a healthy person. I had no quality of life. I was desperate. I was sleep deprived.”

Towt says a friend in a cancer support group suggested she look into her implants as a source for her health problems.

After connecting with women on social media, Towt had her implants removed just four months after having them put in.

She says her symptoms disappeared within 48 hours.

CBS 5 Investigates has uncovered that while implant manufacturers are required to publish informational booklets that include warnings on potential risks of implants, plastic surgeons are not required to give the booklets to women.

Towt says after her implants were removed, she went back and asked her surgeon for the booklet so she could compare the warnings to the consent forms she signed.

Towt says the warnings in the booklet were stronger when it came to certain risks, including cancer associated with breast implants.

“I kind of felt duped when I was comparing them because if I had read the information in that booklet to start with, I would have never ever considered it,” she said.

Towt’s plastic surgeon did not return calls to CBS 5 inquiring when the booklets are provided to patients.

A date for the FDA’s public hearing has not been set.

The FDA says it will happen sometime in 2019.

 

Read the original article and watch the news segment here.

Summary of Published Study by MD Anderson Physicians on the Increase in Rare Diseases Among Women with Breast Implants

National Center for Health Research: September 17, 2018.


A study published in September 2018 in the medical journal Annals of Surgery, entitled US FDA Breast Implant Postapproval Studies: Long-term Outcomes in 99,993 Patients, concluded that “silicone implants are associated with an increased risk of certain rare harms” and that further study is needed “to inform patient and surgeon decision-making.”  The study is important because it is largest study to date, but it has limitations because it is based on data from flawed studies conducted by two implant companies, Mentor and Allergan.

The data collected from the two studies were supposed to be very similar, but because of how poorly the studies were conducted, they are not comparable.  Mentor’s data are focused on patients’ self-reporting on questionnaires, primarily on data of only 20% of the patients collected 7 years after the study was started. Allergan’s data are based on physicians’ diagnoses during the first two years after the patients had implant surgery.  Since patients’ self-reports at 7 years would be expected to include more complications than physicians’ diagnoses after 2 years, it is impossible to make meaningful comparisons between the two manufacturers. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the MD Anderson researchers found that the risks of certain autoimmune diseases increased by 800% (Sjogren syndrome), 700% (scleroderma), and 600% (arthritis) for the women with Mentor silicone gel breast implants compared to the general population of women of the same age and demographics.  Stillbirths increased by 450% in the women who became pregnant.  Other autoimmune and rare diseases were also significantly higher among women with Mentor silicone gel implants.  These diagnoses were also statistically significantly higher (although not as dramatically increased) for women with Allergan implants compared to the general population of women of similar demographics. Given the large percentage of women who were not in the study for more than 1 year, it is not possible to know how representative these findings are. However, these results certainly deserve careful attention.

It is also important to note that the women with saline breast implants who were in the Mentor and Allergan studies were not analyzed in the MD Anderson study.

FDA Response

In response to this important study, Dr. Binita Ashar of the FDA published an editorial in the same issue of the same medical journal, claiming that the MD Anderson study “failed to account for methodologic differences between studies, inconsistencies in the data, differential loss to follow-up, confound and other potential sources of bias.”  That is true.  However, Dr. Ashar did not mention that the FDA should take responsibility for all the shortcomings of the data that MD Anderson analyzed.  She did not mention that the flawed data were based on studies that were required by the FDA as a condition of approval for the breast implants made by Allergan and Mentor.  The data were flawed because women soon disappeared from the study, and the FDA did not require the companies to finish the studies, as they should have,

As a result of the FDA’s failure to enforce the study requirements, the large Allergan and Mentor studies used as the basis of the MD Anderson analyses were very flawed short-term studies rather than the 10-year studies that FDA had proudly said they were requiring.  Whereas the companies blamed the study shortcomings on the enormous number of women who “dropped out” of the study shortly after enrolling (including 80% of the women with Mentor implants after only 1 year), we have interviewed women who were enrolled in those studies who told us that they did not drop out of the studies – rather they were “dropped” from the study by the researchers without their consent.  They never heard from the researchers and hence had no opportunity to tell the researchers how sick they had become after getting breast implants.   Instead, several of those women went to the FDA this month to explain to FDA scientists what happened.  They told Dr. Ashar and other FDA officials that they were dropped from the studies.  They told Dr. Ashar and other FDA officials that they had suffered from autoimmune and connective tissue symptoms such as the ones reported in the MD Anderson study.  They told Dr. Ashar and the other FDA officials that despite being sick for years, they were unaware that breast implants could be the cause because neither the FDA nor their plastic surgeons had warned them of the risks.  When they finally found each other on social media (on Facebook pages joined by more than 50,000 women harmed by breast implants), they realized that removing their implants might help.  Much to their surprise, they experienced almost miraculous recoveries after their implants were removed by experienced explant surgeons.   The women told Dr. Ashar and other FDA officials that their symptoms disappeared entirely or improved by 85%.

The FDA editorial was written before Dr. Ashar met with the former implant patients this month, but she had previously met with several of the same women who had reported these same problems and recoveries after explant surgery.  So it is very discouraging that FDA staff have been and continue to be so close-minded about the risk of breast implants despite the MD Anderson analyses.

What Have we Learned from the MD Anderson Study?

We agree with the FDA and the MD Anderson researchers that these results can’t be considered conclusive, but the FDA needs to look at the data more carefully and require better studies so that they can reconsider their repeated claim that breast implants are only proven to cause local complications, such as leaking and painful implants.  Although the FDA admits that breast implants can cause a cancer of the immune system known as ALCL, they continue to quote industry-funded studies claiming that implants do not cause other systemic illnesses.  It should be obvious to open-minded scientists that if breast implants can cause cancer of the immune system, they can probably cause other serious immune system diseases and symptoms.  Moreover, the results of the MD Anderson study supports those concerns about autoimmune symptoms and diseases.

What should be the key information of importance to women considering breast implants or women who have them in their bodies? Clearly, these studies indicate that patients should report any new symptoms that develop after getting their implants, whether involving their breasts or other parts of their body.  Breast implant patients should know that the FDA recommends MRI imaging of silicone breast implants 3 years after the augmentation or reconstructive surgery and every 2 years thereafter.

  

Statement of Dr. Diana Zuckerman, President of the National Center for Health Research Regarding the New Study of 100,000 Women with Breast Implants

Dr. Diana Zuckerman, President of the NCHR: September 17, 2018.


In the largest study ever conducted of long-term health risks for patients with breast implants, researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have reported that women with silicone implants are more likely to be diagnosed with several rare diseases, autoimmune disorders, and other conditions.  These results are consistent with numerous previously published studies, but contradict the conclusions of studies funded by implant manufacturers or plastic surgery medical societies.

The study, published in the medical journal Annals of Surgery, is by researchers in MD Anderson’s Department of Plastic Surgery and is based on analyses of almost 100,000 patients with either saline or silicone implants. The information was derived from the FDA’s database dating back to 2005.  When the FDA approved silicone gel breast implants made by two manufacturers in 2006, the agency required that each of the manufacturers study at least 40,000 women for 10 years.  Those studies were started but never completed, making it impossible to determine the long-term risks of breast implants.  In the absence of such crucial studies, patients report that they were not warned about the risks when they decided to get breast implants.

We thank Mark W. Clemens, M.D., associate professor, Plastic Surgery, the senior investigator of this very important study.  The findings are consistent with what thousands of women with breast implants have reported in Facebook groups and other social media, and directly challenge the FDA’s claims that breast implants do not cause such diseases.  We urge the FDA to be more patient-centered and finally require independent studies be conducted of women before and after their breast implants are removed.  Many women have reported that their debilitating autoimmune symptoms decreased or disappeared after their breast implants were removed, but scientific data is needed to establish the rate of recovery.

F.D.A. Targets Vaping, Alarmed by Teenage Use

Sheila Kaplan and Jan Hoffman, The New York Times: September 12, 2018.


WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday declared that teenage use of electronic cigarettes has reached “an epidemic proportion,” and it put makers of the most popular devices on notice that they have just 60 days to prove they can keep their devices away from minors.

The order was part of a sweeping government action that targeted both makers and sellers of e-cigarettes. If Juul Labs and four other major manufacturers fail to halt sales to minors, the agency said, it could remove their flavored products from the market. It also raised the possibility of civil or criminal charges if companies are allowing bulk sales through their websites.

The agency said it was sending warning letters to 1,100 retailers — including 7-Eleven stores, Walgreens, Circle K convenience shops and Shell gas stations — and issued another 131 fines, ranging from $279 to $11,182, for selling e-cigarettes to minors.

Federal law prohibits selling e-cigarettes to anyone under 18. In a briefing with reporters, the F.D.A. commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, said that more than two million middle and high school students were regular users of e-cigarettes last year.

The government’s tactics underscore a dilemma in the public health community: In addressing one public health problem — cigarette smoking, which kills 480,000 people in the United States each year — e-cigarettes are creating another — hooking teenagers who have never smoked on nicotine.

E-cigarette users inhale far fewer toxic chemicals than do smokers of traditional cigarettes. But they can take in higher levels of nicotine, which is addictive.

“The developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to addiction,” the F.D.A. said in its statement announcing the actions.

In particular, the agency has been watching the wildly popular Juul, which offers especially potent nicotine hits. Juul Labs launched the sleek device, which looks like a flash drive, in 2015. It comes with “pods” in eight flavors, among them mango, menthol and creme. In a short time, Juul has become the dominant seller of e-cigarettes and a fad among students. According to Nielsen data, Juul controls 72 percent of the market, and is valued by investors at $16 billion.

In an emailed statement, a Juul spokeswoman said: “Juul Labs will work proactively with F.D.A. in response to its request. We are committed to preventing underage use of our product, and we want to be part of the solution in keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people.”

Dr. Gottlieb said the F.D.A. would look closely at whether Juul and the other manufacturers were allowing bulk purchases of products through their own websites — a practice where the buyer could then sell to minors.

If such “straw sales” are happening, it should be readily apparent to the manufacturers, he said. “If the companies don’t know, or if they don’t want to know, we’ll now be helping to identify it for them.”

The other four products facing the 60-day deadline are RJR Vapor Co.’s Vuse, Imperial Brands’ blu and devices made by Logic. They said they were working with the F.D.A. as well.

RJR, Imperial and Altria are all major tobacco companies. As smoking rates have declined, the industry sees e-cigarettes as an important piece of its survival, a fact that makes some in public health mistrustful.

“They say they’ve changed from the days of Joe Camel,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “But look at what’s happening right now, on our watch and on their watch. They must demonstrate that they’re truly committed to keeping these new products out of the hands of kids.”

Dr. Gottlieb has said many times he believes that e-cigarettes and similar products known as electronic nicotine delivery systems may be effective options for adults who want to stop smoking but still crave nicotine. But he said teenage vaping has become so concerning that regulators may have to curb the availability of the devices to keep them out of the hands of youths.

“Inevitably what we are going to have to contemplate are actions that may narrow the off-ramp for adults who see e-cigarettes as a viable alternative to combustible tobacco in order to close the on ramp for kids,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “It’s an unfortunate trade-off.”

Dr. Gottlieb’s aggressive approach against private industry is unusual for an official in the business-friendly Trump administration which has sought to roll back numerous environmental and health regulations. But critics said that his decision last summer to extend a deadline for e-cigarette manufacturers to demonstrate that their products comply with public health concerns helped perpetuate the current problem.

“It’s nice they want to do something but realistically, what are they going to accomplish this way when they could be so much more effective by following the regulatory plan that had been ready to put into place and that the commissioner postponed?” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, a nonprofit health policy group.

She also pointed to the popularity of vaping among young adults. Researchers generally believe that the adolescent brain continues to develop through age 26. “It’s a big epidemic among people ages 18 to 30, too,” she said.

And while the F.D.A.’s announcement struck many as tough, legal experts said the agency could face a protracted legal fight if it follows through on its threats to ban flavors and curtail marketing.

Marc J. Scheineson, a health care lawyer and a former associate F.D.A. commissioner, said that the agency was relying on public opinion and its own bully pulpit to push the targeted manufacturers into “voluntary compliance.”

Some antismoking groups, while encouraged by the F.D.A.’s actions, expressed caution: “Asking the tobacco industry to come up with solutions is the proverbial case of asking the fox to guard the hen house,” said Robin Koval, the president and chief executive of Truth Initiative. “After decades, there is no evidence that the tobacco industry is able to regulate itself.”

In April, the F.D.A. announced it was investigating Juul’s marketing practices to determine if the company deliberately targeted youths. The agency requested reams of documents from the company, including focus group reports and toxicology studies. Juul has submitted thousands of pages of records to the agency, but neither the F.D.A. nor Juul have made them public. Dr. Gottlieb said the agency’s tobacco division is still poring through them.

While the actions against the industry are alarming to the e-cigarette companies, they are also problematic for the F.D.A.

In July 2017, as part of a broad plan to reduce tobacco deaths in the United States, the F.D.A. extended the deadline for e-cigarette makers to comply with new tough federal guidelines, which, among other things, require companies to prove the e-cigarettes are beneficial to public health. In granting the five-year extension till 2022, Dr. Gottlieb said he would also force manufacturers to cut nicotine levels in traditional cigarettes, to render them nonaddictive. For that to work, he said, smokers needed more and better cigarette substitutes.

But in an interview, Dr. Gottlieb said the immense popularity of vaping among teens and the growing addiction among young people was not something he foresaw last summer, and the agency must rethink its policy — perhaps moving the deadline closer and requiring companies to gain F.D.A. approval to stay on the shelves.

Risa Robinson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, began studying e-cigarettes six years ago for the F.D.A. The early products did not have enough nicotine to cause concern, she said. But later products, like Juul, had more nicotine and, she said, can become even stronger depending on how deeply a user puffs.

“I’m highly concerned now,” Dr. Robinson said. Beyond nicotine, the addition of heat to the e-liquid flavors generates chemicals that have not yet been studied in depth, she added.

The attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, who recently began an investigation into the marketing and sale of e-cigarettes to minors, praised the F.D.A.’s action.

“We’ve worked too hard over the past 50 years to reduce smoking rates among young people to let these companies profit off of getting them hooked on nicotine,” Ms. Healey said. “This move by the F.D.A. is a good first step to shut down companies targeting minors.”

A Juul spokeswoman, Victoria Davis, said recently that the company had already stepped up its own patrol of retailers who advertise to youths or who don’t enforce age requirements, as well as social media posts. But it’s not always easy.

From Jan. 1 through July 28, Ms. Davis said, Juul asked Instagram to remove over 5,500 posts, and the social media company complied on 4,562. Facebook Marketplace was less agreeable. The company agreed to remove 45 of 144 posts. Amazon took down 13 of 33.

Dr. Gottlieb said he was not impressed by the measures Juul and the other companies have taken.

“It didn’t have the intended impact or I wouldn’t be viewing the statistics I’m now seeing,” he said.

 

Read the original article here.

FDA Rarely Uses Its Power to Recall Dangerous Medical Devices. Why Not?

Meg Bryant, MedTech Dive: August 31, 2018.


The FDA has the authority to recall dangerous and risky medical devices, but it has rarely done so, largely relying on manufacturers to take necessary actions when a product defect or spike in serious adverse incidents occurs.

Since Congress passed the medical device amendments to the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act in 1976, the agency has used its 518(e) mandatory recall authority just a handful of times. In 1991, the FDA ordered Medline to recall its Dynafeed enteral pump due to design flaws and failure to comply with good manufacturing practices. The agency issued three mandatory recall notices the following year and in 2008, recalled Nebion’s MRI device, citing lack of FDA approval and safety and effectiveness data, as well as noncompliance with GMPs.

There have been some recalls under federal consent orders, and the FDA has in four cases taken the unusual step of banning a medical device. The first time was in 1983 when it banned prosthetic hair fibers used to treat baldness because of serious risks including infections. Then in 2016, the agency simultaneously banned powdered surgeon gloves, powdered patient examination gloves and absorbable power used for lubricating surgeons’ gloves. The danger: Residue from the powder could be left behind in the body cavity, causing inflammation and scarring that could lead to complications later on. In addition, bits of latex from the gloves could bind the powder and be inhaled, putting people with latex allergies at risk.

Given Bayer’s recent decision to stop selling the Essure birth control device, following years of unmitigated safety concerns and mounting patient lawsuits, and the release of the Netflix documentary, The Bleeding Edge, many are questioning why the FDA seems so reluctant to wield its recall authority.

“The FDA has not taken them off the market, has not rescinded approval for specific uses, has not done a mandatory recall and has tried to put out [a] warning that the agency knows is not going to be effective,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research. “They do that all the time.”

‘Insurmountable threshold’

“Once products are on the market, it’s almost an insurmountable threshold to get the agency to take action to pull them from the market,” said Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “In the case of [Bayer’s] Essure, had the company not voluntarily acted, I suspect FDA would not have pushed them to pull it from the market, based on statements they made over the last few years in the face of concerns.”

Approved in 2002, Essure was associated with serious risks including persistent pain, perforation of the uterus and fallopian tubes and migration of the device into the pelvis or abdomen. The FDA required the addition of a boxed warning and patient decision checklist to the product’s labeling and in April restricted sales of Essure, but did not call for its withdrawal from the market.

That’s not unusual, says Jodi Scott, partner in Hogan Lovells’ Denver office and former FDA counsel. “By and large companies are pretty responsive to a very direct FDA request to take action,” she tol MedTech Dive. “And while I’m sure it doesn’t work in 100% of the cases, I will tell you it probably works 99% of the time.”

Mandatory recalls are also costly for FDA to take. According to the agency, the estimated annual reporting burden associated with section 518 actions is 1,098 hours.

As a last resort, FDA will order a recall, but it’s a lot easier to “look the company in the eye and tell them we think you need to do a recall and have them do it voluntarily,” Scott said. “And it happens much faster. To go to court and get an order takes a lot of time.”

It can also take time to sort out signals detected through the agency’s MDR reporting and Sentinel systems. If officials think there is an imminent risk of harm, they will do an analysis to determine whether the company needs to take some field action, which may or may not involve a recall. “You have to balance the risk and benefits,” Scott said, noting implants are often left in place and monitored when issues arise because of the risks associated with taking them out.

Still, she insists FDA “is not shy” about telling companies when reparative actions fall short and they need to do more. “But it’s all sort of informal, not invoking the mandatory recall authority,” she added.

Problem begins in premarket process

Critics say the real problem precedes FDA’s failure to act once a device is on the market and lies with the process used to bring most moderate and high-risk devices to market. Under the 510(k) premarket notification, companies need only to demonstrate that a device is substantially similar to another product in the market in terms of its intended uses and technological features. In most cases, no clinical trials are required.

Even when clinical trials are required for novel devices subject to premarket approval, they aren’t always randomized. And in cases where devices are given conditional approval and required to undergo postmark testing, the FDA is often lax about seeing that companies complete studies in a timely manner, they argue.

“They allow these studies to drag on for years and years and years, and by the time the studies are done, or if they are ever done, nobody needs the information anyway anymore because the product’s not on the market anymore or the product has changed so much that the information you have about the product that was being sold three years ago is not relevant to the product being sold today,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman pointed to the case of breast implants. The FDA approved two silicone gel-filled breast implants in 2006, with the proviso the manufacturers — Johnson & Johnson’s Mentor and Allergan — each would study 40,000 women for 10 years. Neither completed the studies, which involved cumbersome online questionnaires and did not provide any incentives for women to complete them. 

Too close to industry?

“Ultimately, the agency is too industry-friendly,” Carome told MedTech Dive. “They view the industry as a partner rather than a regulated entity.” He believes the adoption of user fees has made the situation worse by allowing industry to negotiate benchmarks for FDA product reviews and other activities in return for payments for reviewing product submissions and other services.

Meanwhile, a 2016 proposal to ban electrical stimulation devices intended to treat people with mental or behavioral disorder that who exhibit self-injurious or aggressive behavior has yet to be finalized.

At the time of the proposed ban, only one facility in the U.S. was using the devices: the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts. “Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of the individuals who are exposed to these devices,” William Maisel, chief scientist and deputy director science at CDRH, said at the time. “These devices are dangerous and a risk to the public health — and we believe they should not be used.”

No one is arguing the FDA should recall or ban every device that poses an imminent risk of harm, Zuckerman said. But in cases where FDA opts to keep a product on the market despite well-known risks, it should use the powers it has to require timely and well-designed studies that demonstrate safety and effectiveness versus available alternatives. The agency should “use the teeth it has,” she argued. […]

Read original article here.

New Drugs So Pricey They Need New Payment Plans

Sarah Owermogle, Politico: August 13, 2018.


[…] FDA LOOKS TO MODERNIZE CANCER TRIALS — The FDA issued guidance on Friday intended to speed up certain early and mid-stage clinical trials for oncology drugs by merging elements typically found in phase 1 and phase 2 trials. Studying multiple patient groups separately for criteria like safety and efficacy has the potential to lower costs and add efficiency, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.

Initial reviews were positive: “There is no tablet that got handed down from God to Moses that said drug trials must be conducted in three conventional phases,” said Dana-Farber’s George Demetri, who chairs the American Association for Cancer Research’s government affairs committee. The new approach, known as expanded cohort trials, could allow researchers to be more nimble, Demetri said — more easily spotting a drug’s effect on specific cancers or realizing earlier that it isn’t working.

Vanessa Lucey said the Cancer Research Institute, where she directs the venture fund and clinical accelerator, has itself moved toward these kinds of studies.

The costs: But while the proposed changes could streamline certain cancer trials — the guidance is limited to cases in which a drug’s benefits justify an increased risk, like for cancers that have no cure — there still could be additional costs. In the guidance, the FDA warned that trial sponsors would need to streamline logistics and data collection, and incorporate plans to assess data in real time.

“What’s important about this guidance is it’s trying to come to some kind of political compromise,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research. “It’s trying to do two things that usually conflict — speed and safety don’t go together, usually.” She added: “It’s OK to say they’re going to do this to speed up drug development, but some patients are definitely going to get harmed.” […]

Read the full story here.

The Human Tragedy of Poorly Regulated Medical Devices Gets the Spotlight in a Netflix Film

Amy Martyn, Consumer Affairs: July 27, 2018.


The motel where Ana Fuentes arrives one evening with her young daughters charges $110 for a single night and doesn’t offer weekly discounts. Fuentes asks the cashier for a moment so she can think about it.

Outside, the camera captures an anguished look on her face. It’s clear she can’t afford the expense. She books the room anyway. “Do you like it?” she asks her girls as they excitedly unpack their bags.

The family used to have an apartment, but Fuentes had to visit the emergency room so often that she lost her job, her daughters explain on camera.

Such situations aren’t rare in the United States, where experts have repeatedly warned that millions of Americans have almost nothing in savings and are a single medical disaster away from financial ruin. The problem is compounded nationwide by costly healthcare, lack of access to paid sick leave in the workforce, or a combination of the two.

But Fuentes’ story, like dozens of others featured in an upcoming expose about the medical device industry, has a particularly cruel twist. She says in the film that she was healthy until a doctor convinced her to undergo what was supposed to be a routine, non-surgical medical procedure — getting small birth control implants permanently embedded into her fallopian tubes.

The $155 billion medical device industry has mostly avoided the type of scrutiny that drug companies and health insurers sometimes face from elected officials and others. On Friday, a documentary about the device industry and patients like Fuentes called The Bleeding Edge is set to go live on Netflix, bringing what advocates hope will be widespread attention to an industry increasingly characterized by lax safety standards, enormous power in the operating room, and horrific side effects.

“If you’re going to have something implanted in your body for potentially the rest of your life, wouldn’t you like it to be really well-tested beforehand? Is that really too much to ask?” says Dr. Diana Zuckerman, a health policy analyst who has worked in the White House and as a staffer in Congress.

The current president of the National Center for Health Research, Zuckerman and the other researchers at her non-profit are among the few to have taken interest in faulty medical devices.  

Diving into the medical device industry

Hollywood directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering knew they wanted to make a documentary film about preventable medical injuries, Dick tells ConsumerAffairs, but that was about it.

Sitting in on one patient advocacy meeting for research, they caught a presentation that Zuckerman gave about the medical device industry and the ease with which questionable products get on the market. They decided that they had found their story.

The team interviewed approximately 70 patients to make their film, Dick tells ConsumerAffairs. The film also includes interviews with numerous whistleblowers, such as doctors, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) researchers, and one medical device sales rep who requested anonymity in exchange for speaking on camera.

Dick and Ziering were previously nominated for an Oscar for The Hunting Ground, their documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. Another earlier film, The Invisible War, is an expose about sexual assault in the military.

But persuading people to speak out against the device industry made for the most challenging interviews they’ve done, Dick tells ConsumerAffairs. (A medical device industry lobbyist touts in one scene that the industry is more powerful than some national governments.)

The “E-sisters”

As the film and the research it is based on shows, the problem is bigger than any single device. The Bleeding Edge captures the story by focusing  on four implants — three of which were used exclusively women’s reproductive organs.

The narrative is driven forward by the story of the “E-sisters,” or the activists who say that they suffered debilitating side effects after receiving the permanent birth control implant Essure.

For years, the “E-sisters” have organized a grassroots campaign to convince regulators to ban Essure from doctors’ offices. That goal seemed like an uphill battle until last week, when Bayer suddenly released an announcement that Essure will no longer be sold in the United States by the end of the year.

Bayer frames the move as a “business decision.” The announcement came one week before the Netflix documentary was scheduled for release.

“I’m very glad that these issues are getting this kind of attention, and I hope that Bayer’s decision to take Essure off the market won’t take away from the bigger message of the film,” says Zuckerman, “which is the whole process for devices that makes no sense at all.”

“Why in the world would you want to have a regulatory agency in our government, the FDA, having much lower standards for devices than they do for prescription drugs?”

Essure implants

The story of Essure, in particular, only saw the light-of-day thanks to the “E-sisters,” who count 30,000 people in their Essure Problems Facebook group and have convinced numerous elected officials, doctors, and even early clinical trial participants to join their cause.

“One of the things that is disturbing to me is that these issues only came to light because of the work of victims,” former Representative Mike  Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said in an interview several years ago.

Women who agreed to participate in clinical trials for Essure in the late 90s have said that they there were sold on a pitch to get a free, non-hormonal, and permanent birth control that was already proven safe.

A nickel coil, the size of a ballpoint pen, would be placed in each fallopian tube. That was designed to create an inflammatory response so that the coils would become permanently encased in the resulting scar tissue.

Regulators with the FDA approved the device in 2002, despite admitting that they knew little about the long-term side effects of such a procedure, as footage that the E-sisters had obtained captures. What’s more, numerous clinical trial participants later said that their painful side effects were not included in the company’s official data.

Doctors not long after began using the devices without questioning potential risks. “For some reason we did that to women. And I did that, too,” Dr. Shawn Tassone, an Austin-based gynecologist, tells ConsumerAffairs.

Insurance and profit margins

The sales representatives who taught doctors how to place the devices — something that Bayer has defended as a common industry practice — offered no instructions on how the device should be removed if there were side effects.

“We were just told from the very beginning that even if they’re misplaced, you don’t have to remove them,” Tassone remembers.

The role that insurance coverage may have played isn’t examined specifically in The Bleeding Edge, but testimony from patients and doctors suggests that getting insurers to cover Essure proved much easier than getting them to cover removal.

Tassone remembers that both private plans and Medicaid paid fairly generously for the Essure procedure, especially considering that inserting Essure was much cheaper and less labor-intensive than tubal surgery, the older sterilization procedure.

“If you think about a tubal ligation where you go to the operating room, it’s $400 [in profit] give or take,” he say. “Essure in the office, after you subtract the amount of the device, it’s probably $1100.”

Treating any resulting side effects proved impossible for women navigating unfamiliar territory. Angie Firmalino, the New York City mail carrier who founded the E-sisters network, initially seeked help from a doctor who morcellated the coils into small pieces — sending the nickel elsewhere in her body.

Connecting patients with doctors who are willing and able to properly remove the devices, as well who are able to code it correctly so that insurance will pay, has since become one of the E-sister’s major tasks.

Tassone, for his part, implanted his last Essure device in 2013. He says it was a call from another doctor who convinced him not to perform the procedure anymore; a woman with Essure apparently had gotten pregnant, he was told, which can be extremely dangerous for both the baby and the mother. One researcher has counted 303 fetal deaths linked to the device.

Tassone has since switched sides, counseling the E-sisters online and in the operating room. He estimates that he has conducted 600 Essure removal surgeries.

Trust remains despite ban

In recent years, the advocates have convinced the FDA to add a black box warning to Essure. Later on, they were able to help pass a rule which requires doctors to give patients more detailed warnings about the product.

But that didn’t appear to stop most doctors from trusting the device. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists continues to say on its website that lasting pain from the procedure is “rare.” By contrast, nearly 27,000 reports have been filed to the FDA’s “adverse event” report database describing health problems caused by Essure and 16,000 lawsuits have been filed here. An estimated 750,000 women worldwide have undergone the procedure.

Now that Essure is off the market, doctors may be more willing to attempt removal surgery, Tassone says, something he thinks is necessary but frightening

“They’re going to think its not a big deal to take out,” he worries. (More detailed advice about removal surgeries is offered on the Essure Problems page).

Generally, before any major surgery involving a permanent implant, researchers advise patients to press doctors on the specific devices that will be used. Zuckerman, the health policy analyst who helped inspire the Netflix film, recalls that even she struggled to get specific answers when she asked a doctor what brand of hip he would choose for her own surgery.

The procedure ultimately went well, she says, but trying to search for good data comparing brands beforehand was nearly impossible.

“In the vast majority of cases, the surgeons are still quoting the company data,” Zuckerman says. “The company’s data on humans is nonexistent —  at least publicly.”

FDA Expedited Approval Process Raises Concerns About Risks

Roxanne Nelson, Medscape: July, 20, 2018


The Breakthrough Therapy designation created by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expedites the approval of drugs intended to treat serious or life-threatening conditions, thus allowing patients quicker access to therapies. But the shorter approval process leads to great uncertainty about safety and efficacy. Are the risks greater than the benefits?

These concerns have been raised again in a new study published online July 17 in JAMA and in an accompanying commentary in the JAMA Forum.

The findings from this study “suggest that the FDA’s expedited review programs may invite greater risks than benefits,” writes Austin B. Frakt, PhD, director of the Partnered Evidence-based Policy Resource Center, Veterans Health Administration, Boston, Massachusetts, in the commentary.

“The idea that doing something more quickly means it is not done as well has considerable face validity,” he comments.

Shorter Trials Lacking Controls  

The new study reviewed all FDA approvals given Breakthrough Therapy designation from 2012 through 2017 and found that the pivotal trials used as a basis for these approvals more often than not lacked randomization, double-blinding, and control groups. They also tended to use surrogate markers as primary endpoints and had small patient cohorts.

In addition, over half of the approvals were based on the results of a single trial.

This leads to greater uncertainty, say the authors, led by Joseph S. Ross, MD, MHS, an associate professor of medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut.

It is not known whether the effect observed in the single small trial will be observed in a larger population or replicated in another trial, or whether the effect observed over the short term will persist over the longer term.

“There is also uncertainty over whether the effect observed on the outcomes used in these shorter trials, such as surrogate markers of disease, will be confirmed by eventual demonstration of benefit and safety based on clinical outcomes like improved mortality or improved symptoms,” Ross told Medscape Medical News.

Ross said that the FDA “is doing everything it can to expedite the development and review of drugs that treat serious and life-threatening conditions.”

“My expectation is that this is what the public and clinicians — and Congress — want,” he told Medscape Medical News. “More novel therapies coming to market as quickly as is reasonably possible, while still assuring drug safety and efficacy.”

But their research suggests that FDA approval of these breakthrough therapies is generally based on shorter and smaller clinical trials than those that support FDA approval of non–breakthrough therapy drugs.

If this “trade off” is going to be made, with novel drugs entering the market on the basis of evidence that is generally accompanied by greater uncertainty, “we must be committed as a clinical and scientific community to ensuring that high-quality, rigorous postmarket trials are conducted within a reasonable period of time,” he added. “This will resolve some of this uncertainty and ensure that the drugs are associated with the benefit/safety profile that we expect based on the initial clinical studies, allowing clinicians and patients to make fully informed decisions about whether to use these novel treatments.”

Minimal Evidence

In this study, Ross and colleagues reviewed all new FDA approvals that had been granted Breakthrough Therapy designation, looking at the pivotal clinical trials that serve as the basis for approval as well as pre-market development and review times.

They identified 46 agents that had received Breakthrough Therapy designation between 2012 and 2017, based on 89 pivotal trials. Of these, more than half were for oncologic indications (n = 25 [54.3%]), followed by infectious disease (n = 8 [17.4%]); just over half the drugs (n = 25 [54.3%]) were considered to be first in class.

In addition, nearly two thirds of these agents were designated as orphan products (n = 30 [65.2%]) and qualified for Fast Track review (n = 24 [52.2%]) and Accelerated Approval (n = 18 [39.1%]).

Many of these drugs had only one clinical trial (median, 1; interquartile range [IQR], 1 – 2), while the median number of patients enrolled in these trials was 222 (IQR, 124 – 796). Roughly half of all approvals were made on the basis of a randomized trial (n = 27 [58.7%]), while 21 studies used double-blind allocation (45.7%), 25 had an active comparator or placebo control group (54.3%), and 10 had a clinical primary endpoint (21.7%).

Clinical trials that supported breakthrough approvals with Accelerated Approval status were less likely to be randomized than those without Accelerated Approval (3 trials with Accelerated Approval [16.7%] vs 24 trials without Accelerated Approval [85.7%]; P <  .001).

The median time to FDA approval was 4.9 years (IQR, 2.7 – 7.6 years), and all eight agents (100%) that received accelerated approval had at least one clinical safety or efficacy-focused postmarketing requirement, as did 18 (64.3%) without Accelerated Approval designation.

Information Lost

Approached for comment, Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Center for Health Research, noted that historically, the FDA required two clinical trials with clinically meaningful endpoints, and for cancer, that was survival.

“That was the standard, and it did result in complaints,” she told Medscape Medical News. “There were complaints that trials take too long and are too expensive, and complaints from patients and physicians that the drugs weren’t available.”

“This research letter in JAMA is important, as it is a very well done reminder what you lose when you speed things up,” Zuckerman added.

The FDA required two studies because the second study shows replication of the results, and that is the keystone to research. “You need to replicate the results,” Zuckerman commented.

“This paper also shows that we have lost double-blinding and active comparators and placebo groups half of the time,” she said. In addition, “very few trials had a clinical endpoint.”

“We lost a lot of information, and this means that patients are using drugs that may not be as effective as older treatments, but yet are much more expensive,” she said.

Zuckerman pointed to a study that she coauthored in 2016, which found that many new cancer drugs approved on the basis of surrogate endpoints retain their approval status and remain available to prescribing physicians even though postmarketing studies show no survival or quality-of-life (QoL) benefit compared with placebo or observation groups.

Of 36 drugs that were approved between 2008 and 2012, 18 did not significantly prolong overall survival in postmarket studies. QoL information was available for 7 drugs, and compared with placebo or observation groups, 2 drugs demonstrated worse effects on QoL, 4 drugs showed no statistical difference, and 1 drug had mixed results. In addition, 1 drug reduced overall survival and 6 offered no survival benefit compared with placebo or observation groups.

“These drugs are very expensive,” Zuckerman explained, noting that they ranged in price from $20,237 to $169,836 per year. “There is no relationship between cost and evidence.”

The FDA does allow access to experimental drugs, and with the Right to Try law, it is now easier for patients to gain access, she said. “At least patients know that they are getting an experimental treatment, and that long-term safety and efficacy are unknown. But with expedited approval, they believe they are getting something backed by evidence.”

Right now, the model is “unsustainable,” she said.

Zuckerman also added that the FDA is not responding to these concerns by enforcing requirements for postmarketing studies, and those that are completed are not giving useful results.

Greater Risks Than Benefits?

In the related commentary, Frakt says the findings suggest that the FDA’s expedited review programs may invite greater risks than benefits.

He notes that most of the new drugs are approved even though information concerning long-term outcomes is limited, and more than two thirds are approved on the basis of clinical trials lasting under 6 months.

In addition, the median approval for cancer drugs in the expedited process is 6 months, which is much quicker than in Europe and Canada.

However, it remains an “empirical question” as to whether the drugs that receive an expedited approval have a worse or better benefit/risk balance compared with drugs that receive standard approval.

Frakt points out that over time, safety concerns may arise for drugs with expedited approval. “Drugs subject to less FDA scrutiny are more likely to exhibit safety problems, be withdrawn from the market, or carry black box warnings,” he says. “We should therefore continue to monitor these drugs and update the performance of expedited approval programs as more information is available.”

But another concern, he adds, is that from 2009 through 2013, only a minority of drugs with expedited approval had their efficacy tested in a postmarket trial within 3 years, as previously reported by Medscape Medical News.

Accepting greater risks may be “reasonable and consistent” with patient preferences, as the expedited review programs are for new agents designed to treat serious conditions and address unmet medical needs. But because many of these new drugs are quite costly and are paid for with public funding through Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs, Frakt notes that “the patients’ point of view is not the only one of relevance. A consideration of cost is also reasonable from the point of view of taxpayers.” […]

Read the original article here.

To Improve Treatments, Researchers Want To Hunt For Clues In Medical Records

Richard Harris, NPR: July 16, 2018


When you go to your doctor’s office, sometimes it seems the caregivers spend more time gathering data about you than treating you as a patient.

Electronic medical records are everywhere – annoying to doctors and intrusive to patients.

But now researchers are looking to see if they can plow through the vast amount of data that’s gathered in those records, along with insurance billing information, to tease out the bits that could be useful in refining treatments and identifying new uses for drugs.

For instance, when the Food and Drug Administration approves a new drug, doctors often don’t know the optimal dose, the ideal length of treatment or who is most likely to benefit – or be harmed – by the medicine.

Especially when it comes to drugs fast-tracked through the process, “there are so many questions that remain when a drug is approved,” says Dr. Janet Woodcock, who heads the FDA’s drug-approval branch. “Many of the questions are not interesting to academics so they’re not done in the academic setting, and companies are not compelled to do them… so nobody does them. I’ve been raving about this for years!” she said Wednesday at a meeting on the subject convened by the Friends of Cancer Research, a nonprofit organization that builds collaborations between government, industry and advocacy groups.

Relevant information is buried – somewhere – within medical records and billing information. The question is whether it’s practical to extract it from these systems, which weren’t designed to be used for research.

It’s an uphill climb. Researchers involved in an experiment to explore medical records to study cancer treatment discovered that these data sources lack some very basic information.

For example, these records don’t typically even show whether a patient is alive or dead.

“Physicians are spending a tremendous amount of time entering information into electronic systems to the point they can hardly find time in their day to look patients in the eye,” says Dr. Andrew Norden, chief medical officer of Cota, a company that crunches digital medical data gleaned from these records. “Yet to date, we’ve not been able … to drive knowledge forward much from that information.”

Cota joined five other organizations recently in an experiment to explore the value of electronic medical records to improve cancer treatment. Friends of Cancer Research asked these six firms to plumb their databases to see what they could conclude about the value of various treatment options for a type of lung cancer.

The results of this pilot study, unveiled at the Friends of Cancer Research meeting, showed that the six independent dives into the data came up with roughly consistent answers. That suggests that this information gathered about patients, dubbed real-world data, is potentially useful for research.

But there are plenty of challenges. Take death. Doctors and insurers rarely add this information into the record of a patient who has died. Researchers have to find that critical piece of information elsewhere.

“We do have a national death index,” says Nancy Dryer, at the medical data firm called IQVIA. “It’s phenomenal, but it’s slow.” It can take more than a year for a death to be recorded there, which means people trying to study medical records have to deal with a difficult time lag. There are other faster ways to glean this information – for example from credit bureaus. “They actually know if you’re dead!” Dryer says. But medical researchers can’t readily access that information because of privacy concerns.

Another challenge is using medical records to measure whether a disease has progressed. Researchers who run formal clinical trials of a potential new drug define disease progression carefully. But that’s not usually the case in medical records. Researchers have to figure out ways to infer that from the medical records and in billing information, and that’s dodgy.

Sometimes it’s even hard to tell a patient’s exact diagnosis from an electronic medical record. “Apparently that’s a very big barrier, to get the diagnosis correct in the patient’s own chart!” Woodcock says. “So you can see how far we have to go.”

Nevertheless, Woodcock says this is an avenue well worth exploring. Much of medical research now depends on formal clinical trials – typically tests that pit a new treatment against a placebo or one that is already on the market.

The traditional system provides the most reliable data, but “it’s incredibly, ridiculously and unsustainably expensive,” Woodcock says. She laments that clinical trials operate largely in isolation from routine clinical care, “and we must bring them back together if we’re going to investigate interventions rapidly and thoroughly.” Figuring out how to use real-world evidence “is the key to making that happen,” she says.

But data from individual patient records is never going to be consistent or error-free. The balancing act is to figure out when a finding extracted from this noisy information is good enough to make judgments that affect clinical practice.

Insurers and drug companies are already interested in using this information to help establish the value of a particular treatment, which can affect whether a new treatment is covered, and at what price. But drug companies would also like to use this information to identify new or expanded uses for drugs already on the market.

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, is concerned about that use of real-world data. “You can pretty much make the data show whatever you want it to show,” she says in a telephone interview. So if you put the data into the hands of drug companies, who have a financial incentive to find new uses for their drugs and improve their market share, “you can’t expect they’re going to be conducting unbiased research if nobody’s monitoring that.” […]

Read the original article here.

FDA Repays Industry by Rushing Risky Drugs to Market

Caroline Chen, ProPublica. June 26, 2018.


Nuplazid, a drug for hallucinations and delusions associated with Parkinson’s disease, failed two clinical trials. In a third trial, under a revised standard for measuring its effect, it showed minimal benefit. Overall, more patients died or had serious side effects on Nuplazid than after receiving no treatment.

Patients on Uloric, a gout drug, suffered more heart attacks, strokes and heart failure in two out of three trials than did their counterparts on standard or no medication.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved both of these drugs — with a deadly aftermath. Uloric’s manufacturer reported last November that patients on the drug were 34 percent more likely to die from heart disease than people taking an alternative gout medication. And since the FDA fast-tracked approval of Nuplazid and it went on the market in 2016 at a price of $24,000 a year, there have been 6,800 reports of adverse events for patients on the drug, including 887 deaths as of this past March 31.

The FDA is increasingly green-lighting expensive drugs despite dangerous or little-known side effects and inconclusive evidence that they curb or cure disease. Once widely assailed for moving slowly, today the FDA reviews and approves drugs faster than any other regulatory agency in the world. Between 2011 and 2015, the FDA reviewed new drug applications more than 60 days faster on average than did the European Medicines Agency.

Europe has also rejected drugs for which the FDA accelerated approval, such as Folotyn, which treats a rare form of blood cancer. European authorities cited “insufficient” evidence of health gains from Folotyn, which shrinks some tumors but hasn’t been shown to extend lives. It costs more than $92,000 for a seven-week course of treatment, according to research firm SSR Health.

As patients (or their insurers) shell out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for unproven drugs, manufacturers reap a windfall. For them, expedited approval can mean not only sped-up sales but also — if the drug is intended to treat a rare disease or serve a neglected population — FDA incentives worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Instead of a regulator and a regulated industry, we now have a partnership,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of the health research group for the nonprofit advocacy organization Public Citizen, and a former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official. “That relationship has tilted the agency away from a public health perspective to an industry friendly perspective.”

While the FDA over the past three decades has implemented at least four major routes to faster approvals — the current commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, is easing even more drugs’ path to market. The FDA okayed 46 “novel” drugs — whose chemical structure hadn’t been previously approved — in 2017, the most in at least 15 years. At the same time, it’s rejecting fewer medications. In 2017, the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research denied 19.7 percent of all applications for new drugs, biologics, and efficacy supplements, down from a 2010 peak of 59.2 percent, according to agency data.

President Trump has encouraged Gottlieb to give patients faster access to drugs. “You’re bringing that down, right?” Trump asked the commissioner at a May 30 event, referring to the time it takes to bring drugs to market. “You have a lot of good things in the wings that, frankly, if you moved them up, a lot of people would have a great shot.”

Faster reviews mean that the FDA often approves drugs despite limited information. It channels more and more experimental treatments, including Nuplazid, into expedited reviews that require only one clinical trial to show a benefit to patients, instead of the traditional two.

The FDA also increasingly allows drugmakers to claim success in trials based on proxy measurements — such as shrunken tumors — instead of clinical outcomes like survival rates or cures, which take more time to evaluate. In return for accelerated approval, drug companies commit to researching how well their drugs work after going on the market. But these post-marketing studies can take 10 years or longer to complete, leaving patients and doctors with lingering questions about safety and benefit.

“Clearly, accelerated approval has greater uncertainty,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, head of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in an interview. When only a single trial is used for approval, “in some cases, there may be more uncertainty about safety findings or with the magnitude of effectiveness.”

She attributed the increased use of expedited pathways to more drugmakers developing treatments for rare diseases, “where there’s unmet need, and where the patient population and providers are eager to accept more uncertainty.”

The FDA’s growing emphasis on speed has come at the urging of both patient advocacy groups and industry, which began in 1992 to contribute to the salaries of the agency’s drug reviewers in exchange for time limits on reviews. In 2017, pharma paid 75 percent — or $905 million — of the agency’s scientific review budgets for branded and generic drugs, compared to 27 percent in 1993.

“The virginity was lost in ’92,” said Dr. Jerry Avorn, a professor at Harvard Medical School. “Once you have that paying relationship, it creates a dynamic that’s not a healthy one.”

Industry also sways the FDA through a less direct financial route. Many of the physicians, caregivers, and other witnesses before FDA advisory panels that evaluate drugs receive consulting fees, expense payments, or other remuneration from pharma companies.

“You know who never shows up at the [advisory committee]? The people who died in the trial,” lamented one former FDA staffer, who asked not to be named because he still works in the field. “Nobody is talking for them.”

The drug industry’s lobbying group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, continues to push for ever-faster approvals. In a policy memo on its website, PhRMA warns of “needless delays in drug review and approval that lead to longer development times, missed opportunities, higher drug development costs and delays in treatments reaching patients.”

The agency has internalized decades of criticism that painted it as an obstacle to innovation, said Daniel Carpenter, a professor of government at Harvard and author of a 2010 book on pharmaceutical regulation at the FDA. “They now have a built-in fear of over-regulation that’s set in over the last 20 years.”

To be sure, nobody wants the FDA to drag out drug reviews unnecessarily, and even critics acknowledge that there’s no easy way for the agency to strike the perfect balance between sufficient speed and ample information, particularly when patients have no other treatments available, or are terminally ill.

“I think it’s reasonable to move drugs faster particularly in the case where you’re dealing with an extremely promising new product which treats a serious or life-threatening disease,” said Dr. Aaron Kesselheim, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “The key, though, when you do that is that you’ve got to make sure you closely follow the drug in a thoughtful way and unfortunately, too often we don’t do that in the U.S.”

Gregg Gonsalves used to be a member of ACT UP, the HIV advocacy group that tried to take over the FDA’s headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, in 1988, accusing the agency of holding back cures. While he didn’t storm the FDA building, Gonsalves participated in other protests that led the FDA to accelerate approvals. Now an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, he said he fears HIV activists “opened a Pandora’s box” that the industry and anti-regulation think tanks pounced on.

“We were desperate. We naively had the idea that there were hundreds of drugs behind a velvet curtain at the FDA being held back from us,” he said. “Thirty years of our rash thinking has led us to a place where we know less and less about the drugs that we pay more and more for.”

After thalidomide, taken by pregnant women to prevent nausea, caused thousands of babies in the early 1960s to be born with stunted limbs, Congress entrusted the FDA with ensuring that drugs going on the market were both safe and effective, based on “substantial evidence” from multiple trials.

Assembling this evidence has traditionally required three stages of clinical trials; the first in a small cohort of healthy volunteers to determine a safe dosage; the second to assess the drug’s efficacy and side effects; and then, if results are positive, two larger trials to confirm the benefit and monitor for safety issues. An FDA team of in-house reviewers is then assigned to analyze the results and decide whether the agency should approve the drug. If reviewers want more input, the agency can convene an advisory committee of outside experts.

As the FDA’s responsibilities expanded in the 1970s, review times began to lag, reaching more than 35 months on average in 1979. The AIDS crisis followed soon thereafter, prompting complaints from Gonsalves and other activists. Their protests spurred the Prescription Drug User Fee Act in 1992, which established industry fees to fund FDA staff salaries. In return, the FDA promised to review drugs within 12 months for normal applications, and 6 months for priority cases.

The more that the FDA relied on industry fees to pay for drug reviews, the more it showed an inclination towards approval, former employees say.

“You don’t survive as a senior official at the FDA unless you’re pro-industry,” said Dr. Thomas Marciniak. A former FDA medical team leader, and a longtime outspoken critic of how drug companies handle clinical trials, Marciniak retired in 2014. “The FDA has to pay attention to what Congress tells them to do, and the industry will lobby to get somebody else in there if they don’t like you.”

Staffers know “you don’t get promoted unless you’re pro-industry,” he added.

This tilt is reflected in what senior officials choose to highlight. The agency’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research gives internal awards to review teams each year, according to Marciniak and the former FDA employee who requested anonymity. Both said they had never seen an award granted to a team that rejected a drug application. The FDA did not respond to ProPublica’s request for a list of award winners.

Higher-ups would also send congratulatory emails to medical review teams when a drug was approved. “Nobody gets congratulated for turning a drug down, but you get seriously questioned,” said the former staffer, adding that the agency’s attitude is, “Keep Congress off your back and make your life easier.”

Dr. Peter Lurie, a former associate commissioner who left the FDA in 2017, recalled that John Jenkins, director of the agency’s Office of New Drugs from 2002 to 2017, gave an annual speech to employees, summing up the year’s accomplishments. Jenkins would talk “about how many approvals were done and how fast they were, but there was nothing in there saying, we kept five bad drugs off the market,” said Lurie, now president of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. Jenkins declined to comment.

“I personally have no interest in pressuring people to approve things that shouldn’t be approved — the actual person who would be accountable would be me,” Woodcock said. She added that the FDA’s “accountability to the public far outweighs pressure we might feel otherwise.”

Congress has authorized one initiative after another to expedite drug approvals. In 1988, it created “fast track” regulations. In 1992, the user fee law formalized “accelerated approval” and “priority review.” When the law was reauthorized in 1997, the goal for review times was lowered from a year to 10 months. In 2012, Congress added the designation, “breakthrough therapy,” enabling the FDA to waive normal procedures for drugs that showed substantial improvement over available treatments.

“Those multiple pathways were initially designed to be the exception to the rule, and now the exceptions are swallowing the rule,” Kesselheim said.

Sixty-eight percent of novel drugs approved by the FDA between 2014 and 2016 qualified for one or more of these accelerated pathways, Kesselheim and his colleagues have found. Once described by Rachel Sherman, now FDA principal deputy commissioner, as a program for “knock your socks off, home run” treatments, the “breakthrough therapy” label was doled out to 28 percent of drugs approved from 2014 to 2016.

Nuplazid was one of them. It was created in 2001 by a chemist at Acadia Pharmaceuticals, a small biotech firm in San Diego. Eight years later, in the first of two Phase 3 trials, it failed to prove its benefit over a placebo.

The company, which had no approved drugs and hence no revenue stream, halted the second trial, but wasn’t ready to give up. Acadia executives told investors that the trials failed because the placebo patients had a larger-than-expected improvement. They asked the FDA for permission to revise the scale used to measure benefit, arguing that the original scale, which was traditionally used for schizophrenia assessments, wasn’t appropriate for patients with Parkinson’s-related psychosis. The agency agreed to this new scale, which had never been used in a study for drug approval.

Since there were no treatments approved for Parkinson’s-related psychosis, the FDA also granted Acadia’s request for the breakthrough therapy designation, and agreed that Nuplazid needed only one positive Phase 3 trial, instead of two, for approval.

In 2012, Acadia finally got the positive trial results it had hoped for. In a study of 199 patients, Nuplazid showed a small but statistically significant advantage over a placebo.

FDA medical reviewer Dr. Paul Andreason was skeptical. Analyzing all of Nuplazid’s trial results, he found that you would need to treat 91 patients for seven to receive the full benefit. Five of the 91 would suffer “serious adverse events,” including one death. He recommended against approval, citing “an unacceptably increased, drug-related, safety risk of mortality and serious morbidity.”

The FDA convened an advisory committee to help it decide. Fifteen members of the public testified at its hearing. Three were physicians who were paid consultants for Acadia. Four worked with Parkinson’s advocacy organizations funded by Acadia. The company paid for the travel of three other witnesses who were relatives of Parkinson’s patients, and made videos shown to the committee of two other caregivers. Two speakers, the daughter and grand-daughter of a woman who suffered from Parkinson’s, said they had no financial relationship with Acadia. However, the granddaughter is now a paid “brand ambassador” for Nuplazid. All begged the FDA to approve Nuplazid.

“Acadia or its consultants interacted with some of the potential speakers to facilitate logistics and reimburse for travel, as is common practice,” Acadia spokeswoman Elena Ridloff said in an email. “…All speakers presented their own experience in their own words.”

The only speaker who urged the FDA to reject the drug was a scientist at the National Center for Health Research who has never had any financial relationship with Acadia.

The witnesses’ pleas affected the panel members, who voted 12-2 to recommend accelerated approval. “If there were a safe and effective alternative on the market, I would not have voted yes,” said Almut Winterstein, a professor of pharmaceutical outcomes and policy at the University of Florida. “But I think that, in particular, the public hearing today was very compelling. There clearly is a need.”

Dr. Mitchell Mathis, director of the FDA’s division of psychiatry products, sided with the advisory panel, overruling Andreason. “Even this small mean improvement in a disabling condition without an approved treatment is meaningful,” Mathis wrote, adding that its safety profile was no worse than other antipsychotics on the market. Like other antipsychotics, Nuplazid carries a warning on the label of increased deaths in elderly patients with dementia-related psychosis. Since Nuplazid’s approval in 2016, Acadia has raised its price twice, and it now costs more than $33,000 a year.

As Nuplazid began to reach patients, reports of adverse events poured in. While it’s impossible to ascertain whether the treatment was responsible for them, the sheer numbers, including the 887 deaths, are “mind boggling,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.

In more than 400 instances, Nuplazid was associated with worsening hallucinations — one of the very symptoms it was supposed to treat.

That’s what happened to Terrence Miller, a former Hewlett Packard and Sun Microsystems employee who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the early 1990s. About five years ago, Miller began to experience mild hallucinations, such as seeing cats and dogs in his home in Menlo Park, California. At the time, he realized that the animals weren’t real, and the visions didn’t bother him, so he didn’t take any medication for them. But two years later, after surgery for a hip injury, the hallucinations worsened.

“He was convinced that he hadn’t had the surgery yet and people were going to harvest his organs,” recalled his wife, Denise Sullivan. “He’d see spaceships outside the window and they had to call security to help restrain him.”

In 2016, Dr. Salima Brillman prescribed Nuplazid. Miller tried Nuplazid twice, for a few months each time. His hallucinations became darker. “I’d say, ‘Who are you talking to?’ and he said, ‘They’re telling me to do bad stuff,’” Sullivan said. Afraid “he might hurt me because of what his evil ‘friends’ were telling him,” Sullivan, who was paying more than $1,000 a month for the drug out of her own pocket, then stopped the treatment.

What Sullivan and Miller didn’t know is that Brillman earned $14,497 in consulting fees from Acadia in 2016, ranking as the company’s seventh highest paid doctor, government records show. The top five prescribers of Nuplazid in Medicare, the government’s health program for the elderly, all received payments from Acadia. Dr. David Kreitzman of Commack, New York, prescribed the most: $123,294 worth of Nuplazid for 18 patients in 2016, according to data company CareSet. He was paid $14,203 in consulting fees.

Brillman and Kreitzman didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Miller’s new doctor switched him onto Seroquel, an old drug long used off-label for Parkinson’s-related psychosis. With it, he’s sleeping better and the hallucinations, while remaining, have become more benign again, Sullivan said. Patients like Miller, whose hallucinations worsen, may not have been on Nuplazid for long enough, said Ridloff, the Acadia spokeswoman.

The 887 reported deaths of Nuplazid patients may be an undercount. A nurse in Kansas, who specializes in dementia care, said a resident in one of the facilities she worked at had no history of cardiac issues, yet died from congestive heart failure within a month of starting on Nuplazid. The nurse requested anonymity because she continues to work in nursing care facilities.

“We questioned the ordering physician whether this should be reported to the FDA in relation to Nuplazid and he said, ‘Oh no, the drug rep said this couldn’t have happened because of Nuplazid,’ and it was never reported,” she said.

Acadia’s Ridloff said such behavior by a sales representative would be “absolutely not consistent with our protocols, policies and procedures.”

She said that deaths are to be expected among patients who are elderly and in an advanced stage of Parkinson’s, and that Nuplazid does not increase the risk of mortality.

“Acadia’s top priority has been, and continues to be, patient safety,” she said. “We carefully monitor and analyze safety reports from clinical studies and post-marketing reporting to ensure the ongoing safety of Nuplazid. Based on the totality of available information, Acadia is confident in Nuplazid’s efficacy and safety profile.”

After a CNN report in April about adverse events related to Nuplazid prompted lawmakers to question the FDA, Gottlieb said he would “take another look at the drug.” Agency spokeswoman Sandy Walsh confirmed that that an evaluation is ongoing, and the FDA “may issue additional communications as appropriate.”

Nuplazid isn’t the only drug approved by an FDA senior official against the advice of lower-level staffers. In 2016, internal reviewers and an advisory committee called for rejecting a drug for a rare muscular disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Only 12 patients participated in the single trial that compared the drug, Exondys 51, with a placebo. Trial results showed that Exondys 51 produced a small amount of dystrophin, a protein Duchenne patients lack. But the company didn’t show that the protein increase translated into clinical benefits, like helping patients walk.

Woodcock approved the drug. Internal FDA documents later revealed that she was concerned about the solvency of the drugmaker, Sarepta Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A memo by the FDA’s acting chief scientist recounted Woodcock saying that Sarepta “needed to be capitalized” and might go under if Exondys 51 were rejected. Exondys 51 went on the market with a price tag of $300,000 a year.

“We don’t look at a company and say they’ll have a lower standard because they’re poor, but we’re trying to recognize that, small or large, companies will never work on developing a drug if they won’t make a profit,” said Woodcock. “Our job is to work with the field, and with the firms to try and find a path forward,” especially on rare diseases where a large trial is impractical, she said.

Last month, the European Medicines Agency’s advisory committee recommended rejection of Exondys 51’s application, saying “further data were needed to show … lasting benefits relevant to the patient.”

Sarepta is asking the committee to reconsider, the company said in a June press release.

The debate over Exondys 51 centered on the value of a so-called surrogate endpoint, a biological or chemical measure that serves as a proxy for whether the drug actually treats or cures the disease. Surrogate measures speed drug development because they’re easier and quicker to measure than patient outcomes.

Some surrogate measures are well-established. Lowering cholesterol has been proven repeatedly to help reduce heart attacks and strokes. But others aren’t, like how much dystrophin needs to be produced to help Duchenne patients, raising concerns that drugs may be approved despite uncertain benefits.

The jury is still out on two other drugs, Folotyn and Sirturo, which received expedited approval based on surrogate measurements. There’s no proof that Folotyn helps patients with a rare cancer — peripheral T-cell lymphoma — live longer, while Sirturo, an antibiotic for multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, has potentially fatal side-effects. Yet since both drugs were aimed at small or under-served populations, the FDA rewarded their manufacturers with valuable perquisites.

In a clinical trial, Folotyn reduced tumors in 29 of 107 patients, but the shrinkage lasted longer than 14 weeks in only 13 people. Since everyone in the study got Folotyn, it wasn’t apparent whether the drug would help patients do better than a placebo or another drug. Meanwhile, 44 percent of participants in the trial suffered serious side effects, including sores in mucous membranes, including in the mouth, lips and digestive tract, and low levels of blood cells that help with clotting. One patient died after being hospitalized with sores and low white blood-cell counts.

While tumor shrinkage is a commonly used surrogate measurement in cancer trials, it often has a low correlation with longer life expectancy, according to a 2015 study. “I would say to a patient, this drug may be more likely to shrink a tumor either partially or even completely, but that may in fact be a pyrrhic victory if it doesn’t help you live better or longer,” said Mikkael Sekeres, director of the leukemia program at the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, who voted against approving Folotyn at the FDA’s advisory panel discussion in 2009. He was out-voted 10 to four. Three years later, the European Medicines Agency rejected the drug.

Because peripheral T-cell lymphoma only affects about 9,000 Americans each year, the FDA designated Folotyn as an “orphan” drug, giving its manufacturer, Allos Therapeutics, tax incentives and at least two extra years of patent exclusivity. Nevada-based Spectrum Pharmaceuticals acquired Allos in 2012. At more than $92,000 per course of treatment, Folotyn is Spectrum’s top-selling product, earning $43 million in 2017.

Dr. Eric Jacobsen, clinical director of the adult lymphoma program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, has become disillusioned with Folotyn since he helped Allos run the original trial. “Enthusiasm for the drug has waned,” he said. “It’s been on the market for a long time, and there’s no additional data suggesting benefit.” He now prescribes other options first, particularly because of the mouth sores Folotyn can cause, which make it painful to eat or drink.

The FDA approved Sirturo in 2012 without requiring Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer, to demonstrate that patients on the drug were cured of tuberculosis. Instead, Johnson & Johnson only had to show that the treatment, when added to a traditional drug regimen, killed bacteria in the sputum faster than did the regimen alone. Sirturo was successful by that measure, but 10 patients who took it died, five times as many as the two in the group on placebo.

Dean Follmann, a biostatistics expert at the National Institutes of Health, voted as an FDA advisory committee member to approve Sirturo but wrestled with how to read the sputum data in light of the higher death rate: “The drug could be so toxic that it kills bacteria faster, but it also kills people faster.”

The imbalance in deaths during the trial “was a safety signal” that led the FDA to require “its most serious warning in product labeling,” known as a boxed warning, said agency spokeswoman Walsh. The packaging, she added, specified that Sirturo “should only be used for patients for whom an effective TB regimen cannot otherwise be provided. Thus, current labeling provides for a safe and effective use.”

Under a 2007 provision in the user-fee law, aimed at spurring treatments for developing nations, Sirturo’s approval qualified Johnson & Johnson for a voucher given to manufacturers who successfully get a tropical disease drug to market. The voucher can be used in the future, for any drug, to claim priority review – within six months instead of the usual 10. Time is money in the drug industry, and beating your competitor to market can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Vouchers may also be sold to other drugmakers, and have garnered up to $350 million. Sarepta received a voucher under a similar program for pediatric rare diseases when the FDA approved Exondys 51.

In South Africa, where Sirturo is mainly used, the drug is seen as a helpful option for highly drug-resistant patients. A study at one South African hospital by Dr. Keertan Dheda found that 45 out of 68 patients who took Sirturo were cured, as against 27 out of 204 before the drug was available. That doesn’t rule out the possibility that Sirturo may be killing a small subset of patients, said Dheda, but the risk is “very minor compared to the disease itself.”

Adrian Thomas, Johnson & Johnson’s vice president of global public health, said in an interview that observational results since the drug went on the market make him “much more confident that there is no more unexplained imbalance in mortality” and that the “benefit/risk in drug-resistant tuberculosis is incredibly reasonable when you don’t have other treatment choices.”

Still, the World Health Organization said in a 2016 report that the “quality of evidence remains very low” regarding Sirturo. “There is still some residual uncertainty for mortality,” the group said, and “specific harms” to the respiratory system “continue to be observed.”

While the FDA expedites drug approvals, it’s content to wait a decade or more for the post-marketing studies that manufacturers agree to do. Definitive answers about Sirturo are likely to be lacking until 2022, when Johnson & Johnson is expected to finish its study, a full decade after the drug was approved. Studies of Nuplazid and Folotyn aren’t expected until 2021. Spectrum has missed two FDA deadlines for post-marketing studies on Folotyn. Spectrum spokeswoman Ashley Winters declined comment.

Post-marketing studies often take far longer to complete than pre-approval trials, in part because it’s harder to recruit patients to risk being given a placebo when the drug is readily available on the market. Plus, since the drug is already on the market, the manufacturer no longer has a financial incentive to study its impact— and stands to lose money if the results are negative. Of post-marketing studies agreed to by manufacturers in 2009 and 2010, 20 percent had not started five years later, and another 25 percent were still ongoing.

And, despite taking so long, most post-marketing studies of drugs approved on the basis of surrogate measures rely on proxy criteria again rather than examining clinical effects on patients’ health or lifespans. In fact, Folotyn’s post-marketing trials will measure what’s known as “progression-free survival,” or the time it takes before tumors start growing again, but not whether patients live longer.

Proving that a drug extends survival is especially hard in cancer trials because patients don’t want to stay in a trial if their disease gets worse, or may want to add another experimental treatment. “In cancer, we’re probably not going to get a clean answer,” Woodcock said. Instead, the best evidence that cancer drugs are effective would be an increase in national survival rates over time, she said.

By law, the FDA has the authority to issue fines or even pull a drug off the market if a drugmaker doesn’t meet its post-marketing requirements. Yet the agency has never fined a company for missing a deadline, according to Woodcock.

“We would consider fines if we thought companies were simply dragging their feet, but we would have the burden to show they really weren’t trying, and it’d be an administrative thing that companies could contest,” said Woodcock.

Even when post-marketing studies belatedly confirm that drugs are dangerous, the agency doesn’t always pull them off the market. Consider Uloric, the gout treatment. Even though it consistently lowered uric acid blood levels, the FDA rejected it in 2005 and again in 2006, because trials linked it to cardiovascular problems. But a third study by the manufacturer, Takeda Pharmaceutical of Osaka, Japan, didn’t raise the same alarms. So the agency decided in 2009 to let the drug on the market, while asking Takeda for a post-marketing study of 6,000 patients to clarify the drug’s cardiovascular effects.

Takeda took more than eight years to complete the study. It found that patients on Uloric had a 22 percent higher risk of death from any cause and a 34 percent higher risk of heart-related deaths than patients taking allopurinol, a generic alternative. The FDA issued a public alert in November 2017, sharing the results of the trial, but left Uloric on the market.

Public Citizen has warned patients to stop taking Uloric. “There is no justification for using it,” said Carome. “If the results of the most recent study had been available prior to FDA approval, the FDA likely would have rejected the drug.”

FDA spokeswoman Walsh said it is “conducting a comprehensive evaluation of this safety issue and will update the public when we have new information.”

Takeda is working with the FDA to “conduct a comprehensive review,” spokeswoman Kara Hoeger said in an email. The company wants to ensure that “physicians have comprehensive and accurate information to make educated treatment decisions.” Thomas Moore, senior scientist of drug safety and policy at the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, warned that future post-marketing findings on Nuplazid could be similarly bleak. Uloric “is the story of [Nuplazid] but a few years down the pike,” he said.

Nevertheless, FDA Commissioner Gottlieb is forging ahead with more shortcuts. In May, he announced plans to approve gene therapies for hemophilia based on whether they increased the level of clotting proteins, without waiting for evidence of reduced bleeding.

Two years ago, a prescient Dr. Ellis Unger, FDA’s Director of the Office of Drug Evaluation, had warned against precisely this initiative. After Woodcock approved Exondys 51 in 2016, Unger wrote, “A gene therapy designed to produce a missing clotting factor could receive accelerated approval on the basis of a tiny yet inconsequential change in levels of the factor…The precedent set here could lead to the approval of drugs for rare diseases without substantial evidence of effectiveness.”

Gottlieb seems less worried than Unger.

“For some of these products, there’s going to be some uncertainty, even at the time of approval,” Gottlieb said when announcing the plan. “These products are initially being aimed at devastating diseases, many of which are fatal and lack available therapy. In these settings, we’ve traditionally been willing to accept more uncertainty to facilitate timely access to promising therapies.”

His decision pleased investors. That day, while biotechnology stocks overall fell, shares of hemophilia gene therapy manufacturers rose.

Read the original story here.