Shayla Love, STAT News: September 28, 2015
Is the FDA ’s approval process broken? […] Here are some excerpts of the conversation, edited for clarity.
Let me start off by asking: What do you think needs to be improved in the FDA approval process?
Zuckerman: I am increasingly concerned when the standards and criteria for what’s safe and what’s effective is moving more from the pre-market stage, before approval decisions are made, to the post-market stage. More drugs and devices are being approved on a basis of preliminary data, smaller samples, shorter time frames, and sometimes lacking control groups, as what recently happened with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. When that happens, it has a chilling effect on those who are trying to develop treatments and cures. Why would a company spend all of its energy working to do the best possible research if they can get an approval based on a shorter-term study, less definitive data, as long as they encourage patient groups to advocate and lobby for them?
What about the notion that patients and parents living with the disease are really the only ones who can understand what that’s like, and they should be in a position to assess the benefit and risk?
Zuckerman: I think patient perspectives absolutely should be factored in. And they should be factored in at every level. It’s not just important for patients who are wanting a treatment, it’s also equally important for the patients who get harmed. There are some folks in this room who have been harmed by unsafe medical products. They feel like FDA doesn’t listen to them. It’s really important to listen to patients, both the patients who can talk about the benefits of the drugs, or devices, but also the patients who can talk about the risks and the complications.
Going forward, why wouldn’t we be concerned that other companies won’t be emboldened to try and put an application in, and then force the issue? What we saw with this Duchenne episode is that when you have an effective pressure campaign, that can have an effect. And I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, that introduces a very human element into the discussion, and it can provide additional information.
Zuckerman: I want to get into the specifics of why this particular decision concerned us so much. The scientists all said this drug isn’t proven to work, we don’t know if it works, and therefore it doesn’t meet the legal standards that FDA is supposed to use to make a drug approval decision.
The company said they didn’t have a control group because it would be unethical to have a control group. That is a very frightening statement. If you think that it is not ethical to have a control group to study a drug that you don’t know whether it works or not, then you will never be able to find out if the drug works. You have to have a control group, particularly if you have a small sample like that.
Another big issue is the company announced the same day of the approval that this drug is going to cost $300,000 a year. This is a drug that has to be taken every year for the rest of these boy’s lives. It’s not a cure, it’s management. Now, these patients who have been getting this drug, presumably, for free as part of a clinical trial will somehow have to come up with $300,000 a year to continue to get the drug. I don’t know if insurance companies are going to pay for it, considering that the data show there’s not evidence that it works.
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