Does the FDA’s ‘break­through’ drug pro­gram need to be re­formed? Har­vard skep­tics say yes

Of all the ex­pe­dit­ed re­view pro­grams that the FDA has set up, none are as pop­u­lar as the “break­through” ther­a­py des­ig­na­tion. And a group of high-pro­file skep­tics says that has cre­at­ed some prob­lems that need to be ad­dressed.

Jonathan Dar­row

Writ­ing in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine, Har­vard’s Jonathan Dar­row, Jer­ry Avorn and Aaron Kessel­heim spell out how the BTD pro­gram has tak­en hold in the near­ly 6 years since it was cre­at­ed by Con­gress, with each pass­ing year scor­ing high­er on the per­cent­age of new drug ap­provals go­ing to a break­through ther­a­py.

It’s not hard to see why. They write:

In car­ry­ing out its di­rec­tions from Con­gress, the FDA de­vel­oped poli­cies that were ap­plic­a­ble to break­through-des­ig­nat­ed ther­a­pies: the agency cre­at­ed well-de­fined staff re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, short­ened its re­sponse times, and of­fered in­ten­sive guid­ance to cor­po­rate ap­pli­cants. For ex­am­ple, un­der this pro­gram, the FDA has ad­vised spon­sors about in­ter­im analy­ses, meth­ods for da­ta bridg­ing be­tween stud­ies, study-size re­duc­tion, and cus­tom-de­signed end points. The FDA re­sponse time­lines are 60 days or less for many break­through-re­lat­ed sub­mis­sions, and dis­cus­sion of cer­tain top­ics, such as pro­pri­etary names, man­u­fac­tur­ing in­spec­tions, and post­mar­ket­ing stud­ies, can be­gin ear­li­er in the de­vel­op­ment process.

Jer­ry Avorn

And that ap­proach has de­liv­ered big gains for bio­phar­ma com­panuies. In a field where shav­ing off a few months in the de­vel­op­ment cy­cle can be a big ad­van­tage — worth well over $100 mil­lion for the com­pa­nies that buy pri­or­i­ty re­view vouch­ers — the BTD pro­gram can slice years off the process. The au­thors cite one re­port un­der­scor­ing an av­er­age 4.8-year de­vel­op­ment pe­ri­od for break­through drugs, com­pared to 8 years for non-ex­pe­dit­ed ther­a­pies.

In­creas­ing­ly, the crit­ics note, the agency is ap­prov­ing break­through drugs on less and less da­ta, leav­ing their rel­a­tive val­ue over cur­rent ther­a­pies untest­ed and un­cer­tain. (This is some­thing I wrote about ear­li­er re­lat­ed to the FDA’s in­creased ea­ger­ness to stamp an OK on a drug af­ter a sin­gle study, rather than re­ly on the twin study stan­dard that has been the hall­mark of an R&D gold stan­dard.)

Over­all, of the 31 break­through-des­ig­nat­ed ther­a­pies, 16 (52%) (in­clud­ing 12 [75%] of 16 on­col­o­gy drugs) were ap­proved on the ba­sis of phase 1 or phase 2 da­ta, 14 (45%) (in­clud­ing 12 [75%] of 16 on­col­o­gy drugs) were sup­port­ed by on­ly a sin­gle piv­otal tri­al, and 13 (42%) (in­clud­ing 10 [63%] of 16 on­col­o­gy drugs) were ap­proved on the ba­sis of ei­ther non–con­cur­rent­ly con­trolled or dose-com­par­i­son tri­als.

Aaron Kessel­heim

And the au­thors say that call­ing these drugs break­throughs has spurred the pop­u­lar press to seize on these new ther­a­pies as ground­break­ing game-chang­ers, even cures, when they are any­thing but. In fact, giv­en that the agency of­ten hands out these des­ig­na­tions ear­ly on, the drugs they deem wor­thy of VIP ser­vice don’t mea­sure up.

Case in point: Aca­dia’s pi­ma­vanserin.

The “break­through” drug was ap­proved af­ter it failed two stud­ies, then bare­ly passed muster in a piv­otal pro­gram. The pri­ma­ry re­view­er turned thumbs down on the drug. But it was ap­proved in any case af­ter a ma­jor­i­ty of FDA ex­perts on the ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee felt the ben­e­fits out­weighed the risks. That’s not much of a break­through, and they cite oth­er ex­am­ples of the same stripe.

So the three say it’s time to call the “break­through” pro­gram some­thing else that won’t be so eas­i­ly mis­in­ter­pret­ed.

But that’s not go­ing to hap­pen. 

Jacque­line Cor­ri­g­an-Cu­ray

In an ac­com­pa­ny­ing let­ter, FDA of­fi­cials led by Jacque­line Cor­ri­g­an-Cu­ray, di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Med­ical Pol­i­cy with­in the Cen­ter for Drug Eval­u­a­tion and Re­search, con­clud­ed that while not every BTD lives up to its promise, the agency has not set the bar too low — and they warn against set­ting it too high.

The FDA needs the tools to iden­ti­fy and ac­cel­er­ate the ap­proval of drugs that can sub­stan­tial­ly im­prove the lives of pa­tients with se­ri­ous or life-threat­en­ing dis­eases who have in­ad­e­quate op­tions. Fast-track and break­through-ther­a­py des­ig­na­tions have done just that — while not with­out chal­lenges, cer­tain­ly with­out com­pro­mis­ing the thor­ough­ness of our re­view or the stan­dards of ev­i­dence to sup­port ap­proval. 

The dis­cus­sion goes on. But FDA com­mis­sion­er Scott Got­tlieb has made it clear that he wants all of the agency to em­brace the break­through pro­gram with the same fer­vor that the on­col­o­gy group has shown. And the pres­i­dent has en­dorsed faster ap­provals, not high­er stan­dards.

For now, BTD isn’t go­ing any­where.

How one start­up fore­told the neu­ro­science re­nais­sance af­ter '50 years of shit­show'

In the past couple of years, something curious has happened: Pharma and VC dollars started gushing into neuroscience research.

Biogen’s controversial new Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm has been approved on the basis of removing amyloid plaque from the brain, but the new neuro-focused pharma and biotechs have much loftier aims. Significantly curbing or even curing the most notorious disorders would prove the Holy Grail for a complex system that has tied the world’s best drug developers in knots for decades.

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Ryan Watts, Denali CEO

De­nali slips as a snap­shot of ear­ly da­ta rais­es some trou­bling ques­tions on its pi­o­neer­ing blood-brain bar­ri­er neu­ro work

Denali Therapeutics had drummed up considerable hype for their blood-brain barrier technology since launching over six years ago, hype that’s only intensified in the last 14 months following the publications of a pair of papers last spring and proof of concept data earlier this year. On Sunday, the South San Francisco-based biotech gave the biopharma world the next look at in-human data for its lead candidate in Hunter syndrome.

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Why is On­col­o­gy Drug De­vel­op­ment Re­search Late to the Dig­i­tal Bio­mark­ers Game?

During the recent Annual ASCO Meeting, thousands of cancer researchers and clinicians from across the globe joined together virtually to present and discuss the latest findings and breakthroughs in cancer research and care. There were more than 5000+ scientific abstracts presented during this event, yet only a handful involved the use of motion-tracking wearables to collect digital measures relating to activity, sleep, mobility, functional status, and/or quality of life. Although these results were a bit disappointing, they should come as no surprise to those of us in the wearable technology field.

Bob Bradway, Amgen CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Am­gen bel­lies back up to the M&A ta­ble for an­oth­er biotech buy­out, this time with a $2.5B deal for an an­ti­body play­er fo­cused on PS­MA

Five months after Amgen CEO Bob Bradway stepped up to the M&A table and acquired Five Prime for $1.9 billion, following up with the smaller Rodeo acquisition, he’s gone back in for another biotech buyout.

This time around, Amgen is paying $900 million cash while committing up to $1.6 billion in milestones to bag the privately held Teneobio, an antibody drug developer that has expertise in developing new bispecifics and multispecifics. In addition, Amgen cited Teneobio’s “T-cell engager platform, which expands on Amgen’s existing leadership position in bispecific T-cell engagers by providing a differentiated, but complementary, approach to Amgen’s current BiTE platform.”

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J&J’s Rem­i­cade — the poster child for how to block biosim­i­lars — fi­nal­ly set­tles Pfiz­er suit

Biosimilars have proven time and again (although mostly in Europe) that competition works to bring down the cost of a once-pricey biologic, and can even expand its use.

J&J’s Remicade, however, has always proven to be an outlier.

Back in 2016, Pfizer won FDA approval for its infliximab biosimilar, known as Inflectra, but when the launch foundered, the company sued J&J, claiming that the company’s plan to block biosimilar competition worked incredibly well. Pfizer even went on to win FDA approval for a second infliximab biosimilar in 2017, known as Ixifi, but decided to never launch it.

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Art Levinson (Calico)

Google-backed Cal­i­co dou­bles down on an­ti-ag­ing R&D pact with Ab­b­Vie as part­ners ante up $1B, start to de­tail drug tar­gets

Seven years after striking up a major R&D alliance, AbbVie and Google-backed anti-aging specialist Calico are doubling down on their work with a joint, $1 billion commitment to continuing their work together. And they’re also beginning to offer some details on where this project is taking them in the clinic.

According to their statement, each of the two players is putting up $500 million more to keep the labs humming.

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UP­DAT­ED: Pan­el of neu­ro­science ex­perts lays out the com­pli­ca­tions with us­ing Bio­gen's new Alzheimer's drug

Treatment of early Alzheimer’s patients with Biogen’s new drug Aduhelm should closely resemble how the drug was studied in its pivotal clinical trials, according to new recommendations from a panel of neuroscience experts led by UNLV’s Jeffrey Cummings.

“Those considering aducanumab therapy should understand that the expected benefit is slowing of cognitive and functional decline; improvement of the current clinical state is not anticipated,” they wrote Tuesday in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, noting that some of their recommendations are more specific or more restrictive than the information provided in the FDA’s prescribing information.

Busi­ness­es and schools can man­date the use of Covid-19 vac­cines un­der EUAs, DOJ says

As public and private companies stare down the reality of the Delta variant, many are now requiring that their employees or students be vaccinated against Covid-19 prior to attending school or to returning or starting a new job. Claims that such mandates are illegal or cannot be used for vaccines under emergency use authorizations have now been dismissed.

Setting the record straight, the Department of Justice on Monday called the mandates legal in a new memo, even when used for people with vaccines that remain subject to EUAs.

Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP Images)

BioN­Tech is spear­head­ing an mR­NA vac­cine de­vel­op­ment pro­gram for malar­ia, with a tech trans­fer planned for Africa

Flush with the success of its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, BioNTech is now gearing up for one of the biggest challenges in vaccine development — which comes without potential profit.

The German mRNA pioneer says it plans to work on a jab for malaria, then transfer the tech to the African continent, where it will work with partners on developing the manufacturing ops needed to make this and other vaccines.

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