Sarah Karlin-Smith, Pink Sheet: April 21, 2021
Six members of the FDA Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee received conflict of interest waivers to participate in the agency’s upcoming three-day meeting to review the accelerated approval of six checkpoint inhibitor indications after the three cancer immunotherapies at issue failed to confirm clinical benefit in post-market trials raising questions about whether industry influence may heavily factor in the committee’s decision making.
The high number of waivers could mean that a majority or close to a majority of the panelists will have conflicts based on the typical number of advisors on FDA panels. The agency used to be subject to waiver limits but the 2012 FDA Safety and Innovation Act removed these restrictions.
ODAC’s 27-29 April meeting, part of the agency’s broader industry-wide effort to evaluate accelerated approvals for oncology drugs, is unprecedented in the number of drugs and indications up for accelerated approval withdrawal. The committee will discuss two indications for Tecentriq (atezolizumab); three for Keytruda (pembrolizumab); and one for Opdivo (nivolumab).
Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist at the University of California San Francisco acknowledged that it may not always be easy to find unconflicted experts but, he said they do exist. He also argued that in this case you might be able to look at other professionals like internists who study research methods and FDA approvals, for example for panel members.
Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research said that while FDA needs some people with clinical expertise who understand the illness and issues with the treatment, it doesn’t need an entire panel of these people. She said that one way FDA can find more qualified experts is by looking at schools of public health where academics rarely get money from industry and they have expertise in understanding clinical trials as well as biostatics.
Even if the academic’s salary isn’t directly funded by their work with industry, there are multiple reasons to be concerned that work on industry trials with the same drugs creates conflicts.
“There’s research showing that researchers feel more positively about drugs that they’ve studied. That’s normal human behavior. You feel proprietary towards something that you’ve studied. You also have a relationship with the company,” said Adrian Fugh-Berman a professor Pharmacology and Physiology at Georgetown where she directs PharmedOut, a project that focuses on evidence-based prescribing and studying industry marketing practices.
The person may also be thinking about how their behavior on the committee may impact other research opportunities the university or they in particular have with the company, she explained.
“Are you going to get more research grants for the company if you kill their drug?” Fugh-Berman said.
Over the past 12 months ODAC has had two other committee meetings where four waivers were granted but that is far from typical. Most agency advisory committees don’t have any waivers or at most have one or two, per data from FDA from 2018 onward.
FDA is supposed to publish an annual report to Congress on advisory committees that include information on waivers but the latest report available online was from fiscal year 2016. FDA did respond to questions about whether more updated data exists and where it can be found.