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 pre­pared is bio­phar­ma for the cy­ber dooms­day?

One of the largest cyberattacks in history happened on a Friday, Eric Perakslis distinctly remembers.

Perakslis, who was head of Takeda’s R&D Data Sciences Institute and visiting faculty at Harvard Medical School at the time, had spent that morning completing a review on cybersecurity for the British Medical Journal. Moments after he turned it in, he heard back from the editor: “Have you heard what’s going on right now?”

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Scoop: Boehringer qui­et­ly shut­ters a PhII for one of its top drugs — now un­der re­view

Boehringer Ingelheim has quietly shut down a small Phase II study for one of its lead drugs.

The private pharma player confirmed to Endpoints News that it had shuttered a study testing spesolimab as a therapy for Crohn’s patients suffering from bowel obstructions.

A spokesperson for the company tells Endpoints:

Taking into consideration the current therapeutic landscape and ongoing clinical development programs, Boehringer Ingelheim decided to discontinue our program in Crohn’s disease. It is important to note that this decision is not based on any safety findings in the clinical trials.

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Vas Narasimhan (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

No­var­tis de­tails plans to axe 8,000 staffers as Narasimhan be­gins sec­ond phase of a glob­al re­org

We now know the number of jobs coming under the axe at Novartis, and it isn’t small.

The pharma giant is confirming a report from Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger that it is chopping 8,000 jobs out of its 108,000 global staffers. A large segment will hit right at company headquarters in Basel, as CEO Vas Narasimhan axes some 1,400 of a little more than 11,000  jobs in Switzerland.

The first phase of the work is almost done, the company says in a statement to Endpoints News. Now it’s on to phase two. In the statement, Novartis says:

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Lina Gugucheva, NewAmsterdam Pharma CBO

Phar­ma group bets up to $1B-plus on the PhI­II res­ur­rec­tion of a once dead-and-buried LDL drug

Close to 5 years after then-Amgen R&D chief Sean Harper tamped the last spade of dirt on the last broadly focused CETP cholesterol drug — burying their $300 million upfront and the few remaining hopes for the class with it — the therapy has been fully resurrected. And today, the NewAmsterdam Pharma crew that did the Lazarus treatment on obicetrapib is taking another big step on the comeback trail with a €1 billion-plus regional licensing deal, complete with close to $150 million in upfront cash.

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(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Some phar­ma com­pa­nies promise to cov­er abor­tion-re­lat­ed trav­el costs — while oth­ers won't go that far yet

As the US Department of Health and Human Services promises to support the millions of women who would now need to cross state lines to receive a legal abortion, a handful of pharma companies have said they will pick up employees’ travel expenses.

GSK, Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson, BeiGene, Alnylam and Gilead have all committed to covering abortion-related travel expenses just four days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and revoked women’s constitutional right to an abortion.

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Aurobindo Pharma co-founders P. V. Ram Prasad Reddy (L) and K. Nityananda Reddy

Au­robindo Phar­ma re­ceives warn­ing let­ter from In­di­a's SEC fol­low­ing more FDA ques­tion marks

Indian-based generics manufacturer Aurobindo Pharma has been in the crosshairs of the FDA for several years now, but the company is also attracting attention from regulators within the subcontinent.

According to the Indian business news site Business Standard, a warning letter was sent to the company from the Securities Exchange Board of India, or SEBI.

The letter is related to disclosures made by the company on an ongoing FDA audit of the company’s Unit-1 API facility in Hyderabad, India as well as observations made by the US regulator between 2019 and 2022.

Bristol Myers Squibb (Alamy)

CVS re­sumes cov­er­age of block­buster blood thin­ner af­ter price drop fol­lows Jan­u­ary ex­clu­sion

Following some backlash from the American College of Cardiology and patients, Bristol Myers Squibb and Pfizer lowered the price of their blockbuster blood thinner Eliquis, thus ensuring that CVS Caremark would cover the drug after 6 months of it being off the major PBM’s formulary.

“Because we secured lower net costs for patients from negotiations with the drug manufacturer, Eliquis will be added back to our template formularies for the commercial segment effective July 1, 2022, and patient choices will be expanded,” CVS Health said in an emailed statement. “Anti-coagulant therapies are among the non-specialty products where we are seeing the fastest cost increases from drug manufacturers and we will continue to push back on unwarranted price increases.”

#Can­nes­Lions2022: Con­sumer health ex­ecs call on agen­cies to in­volve pa­tients in cre­ative process

CANNES — When Tamara Rogers joined GSK back in 2018, “science was king and R&D were the gods.” Now the global chief marketing officer of consumer healthcare wants to make room for another supreme being: the consumer.

As health and wellness becomes more relevant to consumers amid the pandemic, four health-focused executives called on marketers to involve patients in their creative process in a panel discussion at the Cannes Lions advertising creativity festival.

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Photo: Clara Bui for Endpoints News

#Can­nes­Lions2022: Phar­ma and health mar­keters lose spot­light at cre­ativ­i­ty ad fest, but does it mat­ter?

Pharma advertising has long been considered second-tier when compared to the rest of the advertising industry. And there are some legitimate reasons why. Nike sneakers and Coca-Cola soda ads will likely always be more entertaining or exciting than regulated campaigns for diabetes and heart disease.

Still, the Cannes Lions advertising festival of creativity was pharma and healthcare advertising’s annual chance to shine. For the past eight years, pharma agencies and clients stood side by side with consumer companies and agency hotshots on the biggest advertising award stage in the world at the Palais in Cannes, France.