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.

Once fu­ri­ous over No­var­tis’ da­ta ma­nip­u­la­tion scan­dal, the FDA now says it’s noth­ing they need to take ac­tion on

Back in the BP era — Before Pandemic — the FDA ripped Novartis for its decision to keep the agency in the dark about manipulated data used in its application for Zolgensma while its marketing application for the gene therapy was under review.

Civil and criminal sanctions were being discussed, the agency noted in a rare broadside at one of the world’s largest pharma companies. Notable lawmakers cheered the angry regulators on, urging the FDA to make an example of Novartis, which fielded Zolgensma at $2.1 million — the current record for a one-off therapy.

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Covid-19 roundup: GSK, Am­gen tai­lor R&D work to fit the coro­n­avirus age; Doud­na's ge­nomics crew launch­es di­ag­nos­tic lab

You can add Amgen and GSK to the list of deep-pocket drug R&D players who are tailoring their pipeline work to fit a new age of coronavirus.

Following in the footsteps of a lineup of big players like Eli Lilly — which has suspended patient recruitment for drug studies — Amgen and GSK have opted to take a more tailored approach. Amgen is intent on circling the wagons around key studies that are already fully enrolled, and GSK has the red light on new studies while the pandemic plays out.

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In a stun­ning set­back, Amarin los­es big patent fight over Vas­cepa IP. And its high-fly­ing stock crash­es to earth

Amarin’s shares $AMRN were blitzed Monday evening, losing billions in value as reports spread that the company had lost its high-profile effort to keep its Vascepa patents protected from generic drugmakers.

Amarin had been fighting to keep key patents under lock and key — and away from generic rivals — for another 10 years, but District Court Judge Miranda Du in Las Vegas ruled against the biotech. She ruled that:
(A)ll the Asserted Claims are invalid as obvious under 35 U.S.C.§ 103. Thus, the Court finds in favor of Defendants on Plaintiff’s remaining infringementclaim, and in their favor on their counterclaims asserting the invalidity of the AssertedClaims under 35 U.S.C. § 103.

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Covid-19 roundup: J&J, BAR­DA set ear­ly 2021 fin­ish line for $1B vac­cine race; FDA al­lows emer­gency drug use, ahead of piv­otal da­ta

J&J has zeroed in on a Covid-19 vaccine candidate that it hopes to begin testing in humans by September this year — with the extraordinary goal of getting it ready for emergency use in early 2021. And together with BARDA, it’s committing $1 billion to make it happen.

That kind of accelerated timeline would fall on the fast side of NIAID director Anthony Fauci’s well-publicized prediction that it would be another 12 to 18 months before a vaccine can be available for public use. A Phase I trial of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine began two weeks ago, and both the biotech and fellow mRNA player CureVac have discussed similar, if not even faster, timelines for emergency use among healthcare workers.

Mene Pangalos via YouTube

As­traZeneca says its block­buster Farx­i­ga proved to be a game-chang­er in CKD — wrap­ping PhI­II ear­ly

If the FDA can still hold up its end of the bargain, AstraZeneca is already on a short path to scooping up a cutting-edge win with a likely approval for their SGLT2 drug Farxiga in cutting the risk of heart failure. Now the pharma giant says it can point to solid evidence that the drug — initially restricted to diabetes — also works for chronic kidney disease, potentially adding a blockbuster indication for the franchise.

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It is 'kind of a proven tech­nol­o­gy': Hep B vac­cine mak­er joins glob­al hunt for coro­n­avirus vac­cine

Using lab-grown proteins that are engineered to mimic the architecture of viruses to induce an immune response, VBI Vaccines is joining the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine — harnessing technology that has initially been proved safe in early trials as a prophylactic for cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection.

Unlike the raft of the companies in the Covid-19 vaccine race — including Moderna, CureVac and J&J — VBI is taking a pan-coronavirus approach, by developing a vaccine that will encompass Covid-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Can a pair of top AveX­is alum­ni steer a new gene ther­a­py up­start to R&D glo­ry? 3 VCs bet $60M on it

VCs love few things more than a proven executive team when it comes to launching a new company. And now a group of A-listers has turned to a pair of top execs out of AveXis to steer the latest gene therapy player into the clinic.

The biotech is Waltham, MA-based Affinia and the two execs are Sean Nolan and Rick Modi — the former CEO and CBO respectively of AveXis, the gene therapy pioneer that fetched $8.7 billion in a sale to Novartis. Nolan has now taken the chairman’s role at Affinia while Modi moves up to the CEO post at the company.

Un­de­terred by a pan­dem­ic, Gilde Health­care rais­es their largest fund yet

When Pieter van der Meer started raising the capital for Gilde Healthcare’s fifth fund in the waning months of 2019, he had his eyes on a different chain of events that could change the healthcare system and perhaps even play to his firm’s advantage: The US presidential election.

Since raising their third fund in 2011, the 34-year-old Dutch firm had focused on value-based care. They chose late-stage biotechs that came up with new devices and delivery systems for de-risked established compounds, and when they chose preclinical biotechs, they spoke with potential pharma partners, payers and regulators to ask where and at what prices the drug made sense. As the Democratic primary became a contest over how to lower healthcare costs, it looked like a strategy that could pay off.

Daniel O'Day (AP Images)

Gilead CEO Dan O'­Day of­fers a de­tailed ex­pla­na­tion on remde­sivir ac­cess — re­as­sur­ing an­a­lysts that Covid-19 da­ta are com­ing fast

After coming under heavy fire from consumer groups ready to pummel them for grabbing the FDA’s orphan status for remdesivir — reserved to encourage the development of rare disease therapies — Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day had some explaining to do about the company’s approach to providing access to this drug to patients suffering from Covid-19. And he set aside time over the weekend to patiently explain how they are making their potential pandemic drug available in a new program — one he feels can better be used to address a growing pack of infected patients desperately seeking remdesivir under compassionate use provisions.

In addition to trying to reassure patients that they will once again have an avenue to pursue access, O’Day also reassured some analysts who had been fretting that China’s quick comeback from the coronavirus outbreak could derail its ultra-fast schedule for testing the drug in patients. The data are still expected in a few weeks, he says in the letter, putting the readout in April.

O’Day emphasizes that Gilead intends to pursue a pricing approach that will make this drug widely available — if it proves effective and safe. But no one is quite sure just what the longterm value would be, given the work being done on a variety of vaccines that may be rolled out as early as this fall — at least to the most heavily threatened groups.

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